Newark Public School awards $12M contract for new AI camera system aimed at keeping schools safe

Members of the Newark Police department speak with a student outside of a large red-brick school front after dismissal, as other students wait outside of the school.
Newark Public Schools will install 7,700 security cameras districtwide this summer. (José A. Alvarado Jr. for Chalkbeat)

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More than 7,000 cameras equipped with artificial intelligence capabilities will be installed in Newark schools, under a $12 million contract approved Thursday by the Newark Board of Education.

District officials say the high-tech surveillance system is meant to make schools safer, but security experts warn that systems with such capabilities could result in an invasion of privacy or could potentially misidentify items or students.

Turn-Key Technologies Inc., based in Sayreville, N.J., will install the cameras and their required servers and storage across schools this summer as part of a two-year contract. Approving the contract was “time-sensitive,” said Valerie Wilson, Newark’s school business administrator, as district officials want the 7,700 cameras – roughly one for every five students – in place by Aug. 31, before the start of the new school year.

The project will be funded in part by federal COVID relief dollars, specifically, American Rescue Plan dollars that expire at the end of September, in conjunction with local funds and grants, Wilson added.

Board member Vereliz Santana said the project was “comprehensive and ambitious” and asked for routine updates as installation begins in June. Other members raised questions about how the system would work to detect vaping.

“It’s a large bid, as you can see from the funds that are being allocated, but we want to make effective use of our federal funding,” said Wilson during Thursday’s meeting.

The new system comes as city leaders and advocates call for measures to reduce violence among youth in Newark.

The city will begin enforcing a youth curfew on Friday. The rule is in response to an increase in youth violence, said Mayor Ras Baraka last week, which includes two shooting incidents this school year. In November, a 15-year-old Central High School student was shot during a drive-by and in March, another two students were shot outside West Side High School.

Turn-Key’s new system will expand the district’s surveillance capabilities, going beyond its current camera system to detect weapons and track people and cars across schools by using license plate and facial recognition. Last year, Newark schools said new technology was needed because its current security set-up is “outdated, inefficient,” pointing to no remote access, storage, and other limitations.

In May 2023, the district said it expected to install cameras by the end of that year after requesting bids from surveillance technology companies in September 2023. But the installation was delayed for almost a year after bidders did not meet the New Jersey Alarm or Locksmith License requirement, prompting the district to revise its project specifications and request bids for a second time in April 2024, Wilson said.

In addition to upgrading the district’s surveillance technology, the new setup will use an Avigilon surveillance system, a type of framework that allows Newark to expand its systems as security needs change or develop, said Jermaine Wilson, a senior research engineer at IPVM, a security and surveillance research group.

That system will work with HALO sensors that can detect vape, gun sounds, and abnormal noise in areas where there are no cameras such as bathrooms, according to the district’s request for proposal.

“I want to be very clear to everybody that in no way shape or form will this result in an invasion of privacy of anyone’s students, staff, or otherwise,” Wilson said. “Cameras and devices will not and cannot be placed in areas that are not approved and authorized.”

The contract was approved by all school board members except Crystal Williams who abstained from voting. During the Thursday meeting, board member Josephine Garcia said vaping in schools is an issue the district has “been battling and sounding the alarm on for quite some time.” She requested clarification on the type of vape sensors that will be used in schools, an explanation that would be given during the board’s private operations committee meeting this month due to security concerns, Wilson said.

“So as we talk about our safety and security initiatives, we want to ensure that we do not provide all of our information in the public domain,” Wilson added.

Superintendent Roger León said the district is in conversation with the city’s Office of Emergency Management “about a number of things” that are set to take place this coming school year. He would share more information with the public “once those initiatives are in effect,” León added.

Wilson also said city police officials would not have access to the system, which includes cameras inside and outside of school buildings and other district locations.

The district has spent millions to increase security over the years. The school district installed metal detectors to scan students for contraband and weapons and added six new patrol cars for school safety officers. It also provided its security guards with training on bag scanners, active shooter response, and the district’s drug and alcohol policy. Newark plans to hire more security guards and update its software to track school incidents.

Thursday’s contract was approved during May’s reorganization meeting where Haynes, Santana, Helena Vinhas, and Kanileah Anderson were sworn in after winning this year’s school board election. Hasani Council was chosen as board president, along with Santana and Allison James-Frison as co-vice presidents.

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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