Pierz School Board officials unveil video monitoring equipment

By Lorae Vardas, Staff Writer

Go to the mall or any public building in the metro area and there are surveillance cameras everywhere. Rural Minnesota is no different.

A number of buses in the Pierz School District were outfitted this fall with video cameras. “The behavior of students on the bus is a significant factor in the safety and efficiency of school bus transportation,” states Policy 711 adopted by the school board Oct. 31. School officials feel the video recording equipment encourages good behavior and thereby promotes safety.

Since there aren’t enough cameras for all the buses, they may be rotated from bus to bus throughout the year. And, because transportation of students is considered a privilege and not a right, it may be done without prior notice to riders.

According to the policy, a recording of student passengers may be used as evidence of any disciplinary action arising out of conduct on the bus. “Neither the student nor parent/guardian of the student who has been recorded will be allowed to review the recording in accordance with data privacy laws.” But the district will provide a written summary of the incident upon written request of the parent/guardian.

Release of such recordings is governed by the Minnesota Data Practices Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. However, digital recordings that reveal unlawful activity may be turned over to law enforcement for investigation.

With a similar goal of promoting best student behavior, about three dozen cameras were installed this summer in the hallways and common spaces at the high school. The closed circuit television system can monitor activity inside or outside the building anytime night or day.

“In-school thefts are down from last year,” said Assistant Principal Tom Otte, who gave board members an armchair tour of the system’s capabilities. The visual clarity is  1,000 percent better than the old system and can pinpoint specific times and dates of suspected activity, he said.

While electronic gadgetry is useful, it can also be educational and fun. Supt. George Weber told the Board he had hosted a meeting recently with First Robotics, an organization that promotes robot building competitions between schools.

“Teams are mailed the robot kit in January and are allowed six weeks to complete it,” he said. “The kit costs about $6,500.” An instructor to coordinate the project, along with cost of competition and supplies, could drive up the price to almost $12,000. Administrators have submitted a NASA grant to help secure funding and will be soliciting business sponsorships to partner with them in the experience. Virnig Manufacturing of Rice already has made a commitment.

The robot must be constructed to exact specifications and programmed to perform certain tasks, said Supt. Weber. A three-day competition is scheduled to be held in Duluth early next year. “I am not certain when we will hear back on the status of the grant,” he said, asking for support from the Board.