I-TEAM: 'Cameras are the witnesses': Are school cameras getting fixed once it's too late?

Wednesday, August 28, 2019
News 12 at 6 O’Clock

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) — A basketball player accused of hitting his teammate in the head with a gym weight is facing aggravated assault charges while a mom was to wonder would life for her injured son ever be the same.

Back in June, she revealed Butler High School officials told her the cameras in the gym were out at the time of the incident, leaving a blind spot. Blind spots, we uncovered, are common across the area.

Every story has many sides. The truth can vary depending on what you are able to see. Sometimes, that vision can be blurry. That was often the case for school security cameras in the river region’s public schools.

"All schools really need cameras in their schools -- working cameras,” Miranda Bowdre, whose daughter goes to Langford Middle School, said. Her little girl is excited every morning to get there.

But once her student leaves, so does Bowdre's line of sight. She says that’s why she is trusting the school to be her extra set of eyes and ears.

The 14 work orders at Langford suggest otherwise. Comments on the work orders for 2018-19 school year read, "right camera is blurry," "all cameras show up very dim," "7th-grade hall camera out," and "first-floor bathroom camera isn’t working."

We found the average repair time for cameras at Langford was 6 days, but we found exceptions. For example, it took a month for the gym cameras to be fixed when school officials noted that all of them were out of focus.

“If they don’t have the cameras fixed right then, something might happen to those kids and they don’t know," Bowdre said.

In another case, it took 24 days for the 7th grade hallway to have a working camera.

School-wide, Richmond County averages a 7-day repair time. But if you factor in ordering parts or perhaps having for parts to be shipped, seven days seems reasonable.

On the contrary, 137 days is questionable, at least for Bowdre. According to repair logs, it took 137 days to fix two cameras at Sue Reynolds Elementary -- one at the flag pole area and the other at the bus drop off area.

We found at that same school, employees requested a repair for three other cameras. The repair came 88 days later.

There were long wait times for other Richmond County Schools. Repair logs revealed for more than two months at Hephzibah Middle School, all cameras, with the exception, did not work. The logs show a 51-day period between the repair request to the completion date.

In the hallway and lobby at Butler High School, the last day of school came and the cameras were still out. Documents show it took 69 days, until June 25, 2019, to see repairs.

It's a similar sight for Laney High School. It took 62 days for just one camera to be fixed in the student parking lot.

According to notes on the Richmond County repair logs, the person in charge of equipment maintenance for the school system, Benton Starks, told officials at Academy of Richmond County High School, several cameras were out and needed to be checked that same day.

It was not until 31 days later the work order was complete. It's a concern for Terry Grissett, whose son is an 11th grader at ARC.

“A lot of stuff can go on in 30 days,” said Grissett.

As a football mom, Grissett knows a lot about defense and offense. She counts school security cameras as both,

“We just need them," Grissett said. "Just to be on the safe side.”

And, the safe side, it feels a bit like a stranger to Aiken County mom Linda Briggs and her daughter, Elizabeth Tice. Tice attends Midland Valley High School.

“I just -- I pray for my child every day to go and come home safe," Briggs said. “They had four threats at least.”

In the last school year, school threats came often for Midland Valley. But, camera records show of the three counties, on average, Aiken had the longest wait time for repairs at 22 days; that's compared to Richmond County’s 7 days and Columbia County’s 1 day average.

Midland Valley saw the most "urgent" requests compared to all other Aiken County Public Schools. Yet, its repairs seemed to lack urgency.

Here’s what some of Midland repair logs showed:

"Urgent we just had a fight -- camera a and b need to be replaced"-- 73 days to repair
"urgent -- two cameras" -- 34 days to repair
"high priority, camera system off" -- 11 days to repair
"14 cameras complete video loss" -- no repairs until after the 2018-2019 school year was over.

Tice says that means weeks without prevention or accountability at her school.

“To catch that person from bullying, to stop that fight as soon as it starts," she explained.

“You to go to somebody and they say, 'Do you have a witness?' Well, cameras are the witnesses, if you think about it. And sometimes they're a silent witness but you need a witness," Briggs said.

The cameras were not witnesses for two months at Paul Knox Middle School. The repair log shows they had a complete loss of all security cameras that entire time. And, when it was listed as an emergency over at Pincrest Elementary School, it took more than 2 months of waiting.

"They're not putting the children first,” Briggs said. "I mean, you just -- as a mom, you're just worried about your child's safety, and you have to go and put your faith in these adults."

We asked both districts to interview, neither agreed to an interview, but they did offer statements.

Richmond County says it uses four categories to prioritize repairs. Cameras fall into the third-ranking category. A spokesperson said they take all preventative measures to ensure student safety.

The safety and security of all students and staff is of the utmost importance to the Richmond County School System. Currently, there is no board approved camera policy and cameras are not part of each
school’s site safety plan submitted to the state and agreed to by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA).

We utilize a variety of preventative measures to keep students and staff safe. As a result of the GaDOE Facility Security Grant, we will be spending $892,850 on security cameras and associated hardware in Fiscal Year 2020.

Maintenance & Facilities Repair Priority Categories
1. Life/safety systems (e.g. fire alarms and sprinklers)
2. Building conditioning (e.g. plumbing, air conditioning, and heat)
3. Electronic building items (e.g. cameras and badge readers)
4. Miscellaneous building needs (e.g. digital clocks, PA system, and sound systems)

Aiken County offered similar feedback, saying student safety is its priority.

Please see the below School Board Policy ECB Buildings and Grounds Maintenance, adopted in November of 1971 and revised in October, 2001, February 2012, and November 2015.

Purpose: To establish the basic structure for maintaining and repairing district property.

The board is aware of the tremendous investment in school facilities. Therefore the district must establish a continuing program for the maintenance of all district property.

The superintendent is responsible for the overall maintenance of buildings and grounds. The school district will maintain plants and equipment in good working condition and in compliance with state safety regulations by a continuous program of repair, reconditioning, and remodeling. Any unsafe conditions in the schools will receive first priority in the district maintenance program.

The board, acting on recommendations from the superintendent, must approve the remodeling, reconditioning, and improvement of school buildings.

Each principal or location manager is responsible for operation and maintenance of his/her plant and reporting maintenance and repair needs in a timely manner. Except in emergencies, the district will provide additional maintenance services only upon approval of the superintendent.

Teachers and other building staff will make repair requests through their principal.

Executive directors will make frequent inspections of buildings in their areas.

Each area advisory council will inspect each of the schools in its administrative area at least annually and will report its findings to the superintendent and the board.

Work Orders are prioritized on the level of urgency, with the requesting school/department prioritizing by entering the request as a low, medium, high, or emergency. Emergencies appear in Maintenance’s Work Order System with a red flashing alert. Emergency Repairs are always the top priority and are addressed immediately, when possible. It is always the desire of our Maintenance Staff to address repairs, particularly those of a high priority (and, of course, Emergencies), in the same business day.

With that being said, there are times when that is not possible due to the availability of parts and/or the availability of outside contractor specialists necessary to perform the work. Please note that “Closed Out Dates” on the previously answered FOIA request related to Camera Repair Logs do not reflect the date of the repair, rather the date that the repair was confirmed and cleared from the system. Thank you for your interest in our enhanced security. There is nothing of greater priority to us than protecting our students and staff.

Among the biggest three CSRA counties -- Columbia, Richmond, and Aiken -- none have official camera policies.

Copyright 2019 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved