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Samohi Cameras Ready to Roll

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

April 13 -- In an effort to reduce vandalism and to the dismay of some students who feel they are being spied on, Santa Monica High School officials said they are set to activate newly installed security cameras at the district's largest school.

The 11 stationary cameras, which have already been mounted on the outside of the school, will be turned on when the board approves the final policy dictating their use, which will likely take place later this month, district officials said.

The cameras are part of an effort to bring down the costs incurred from graffiti and property damage at the campus, which is attended by nearly 3,500 students, said Principle Ilene Straus

"The cameras will be used to stop graffiti and vandalism... and not to spy on students," said Straus, noting that the district has been working towards the cameras' installation for nearly a year. "As soon as the Board of Education votes, they'll be turned on."

School Board member Oscar de la Torre, who voted to install the cameras, said several questions must be addressed before he would support turning them on.

"Once the cameras are in, they are in," said de la Torre, executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center, which provides activities and mentoring for at-risk youth.

"I'm very concerned about students' rights and privacy concerns and the far-reaching power of government," he said.

De la Torre said he would not support any policy that allowed information captured by the cameras to be used against students, except in the event of vandalism.

"What happens if there is a fight and police want to subpoena those records," he said. "That could be one scenario."

Once a student has an arrest record, de la Torre cautioned, the incident can taint the student's image for some time.

"Nowadays, if you're a young student, the penalties for doing something, like a senior prank, can be severe," de la Torre said.

Senior pranks are part of what led to the board's decision to install the cameras in the first place, de la Torre said, adding that pranks last year included "cutting down trees, splattering paint and defacing murals."

Since July 2003, the district has spent nearly $20,000 to combat vandalism, said Laurel Schmidt, the district's director of pupil services.

Despite assurances that the cameras would only be used to curb vandalism and graffiti, some students said they do not like the idea of being watched.

"We're students, not criminals," said 16-year-old Anna Vivanco, a sophomore at the school. "Installing security cameras makes it feel more like a prison than a school."

Vivanco said she felt the school had other reasons for installing the cameras, such as monitoring fights between students.

"There's been a lot fights this year, and I think the school wants to use them to find out who's involved," said Vivanco, who added that the cameras do not make her feel any safer.

According to Straus, there has been an increase in fights among students this year. She characterized the incidents as race related, but dismissed the notion that the cameras would be used to monitor fights.

"There has been more tension between racial groups this year, but these things tend to move in cycles," Straus said.

At least one district official, assistant facilities manager Rick Demuth, hinted that the cameras could also be used to identify participants "if there was some kind of civil unrest."

But that kind of decision, he said, would have to be made by the school board.

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