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Aurora police to have access to school cameras for first time

A sign entrance West AurorHigh School alerts thschool is monitored by closed-circuit televisicameras. Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

A sign at the entrance of West Aurora High School alerts that the school is monitored by closed-circuit television cameras. Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 15, 2013 6:29AM

AURORA — With the addition of closed-circuit security cameras at every elementary school over the next three months, West Aurora School District soon will be fully monitored and become the first district to work with the Aurora Police Department to improve school safety using security cameras.

Earlier this month, the West Aurora School Board approved the $137,000 purchase and installation of security cameras at all 10 elementary schools, as well as the Hope D. Wall School and Todd Early Childhood Center. The security cameras will be installed by the Aurora-based Alarm Detection Systems, which also monitors West Aurora’s alarms, over the next three months.

About four years ago, West Aurora High School had the cameras installed and the district’s four middle schools received cameras last year.

The cameras create a video feed that can be viewed by the building’s principal and authorized district personnel, as well as Alarm Detection Systems and the Aurora Police Department, if there is a safety issue.

District administrations say the new cameras can give first-responders valuable information about what is happening inside or outside the school before arriving on the scene.

Pete Kerl, the district’s assistant superintendent for operations, said West Aurora had planned for “several years” to install the cameras district-wide — long before a gunman killed 20 children and six school staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in December.

“That certainly brings home the point that the more information that first responders have the better chance they have,” Kerl said of the Newtown shootings. “We’re also hopeful that this serves as a bit of a deterrent.”

Elementary schools will have anywhere from five to 15 security cameras, based on a survey conducted of the building’s layout and input from the principal about areas that should be monitored.

Kerl said there is “less need to have every area under surveillance” at elementary schools. By comparison, West High has as many as 280 cameras, Kerl said.

John Spooner, the vice president of Alarm Detection Systems, said that West Aurora is “well ahead of the curve” in school safety, compared to other districts he has worked with. He said the district also uses card access, voice-controlled entrances and has the ability to scan state identifications to do background checks of visitors.

Spooner said that the Sandy Hook shootings brought school safety to the surface for many school districts and made funding security measures that schools had thought about in the past more of a priority.

Since December, school districts that Spooner works with have expressed more interest in installing panic alarms to help get first-responders to the school more quickly in an emergency, he said, as well as better entrance control. Usually that involves providing card access to staff and video monitoring.

Installing video cameras that police can tap into is a “mixed bag,” Spooner said, explaining some school districts want law enforcement to have this capability, while others do not.

He said school administrators find themselves with the “balancing act of creating a fortress” that is still “an adaptable learning environment.”

In late July and early August, Aurora Police Department’s Commander Paul Nelson will be training officers and conducting rapid-response drills at West Aurora. This is the first time the department has incorporated school security cameras into such drills.

Nelson said the idea to do such an exercise started a few years ago when he went to West Aurora and local Catholic schools to review their school safety plans.

West Aurora was interested in implementing some of the police department’s suggestions, Nelson said, one of which was these drills using the cameras the district installed.

“Other schools have taken up our suggestions for improvements that will improve our response,” Nelson said, but none “have cameras as sophisticated as what District 129 has.”

Starting this year, every public school has to practice for a possible school shooting. Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation into law July 1 that requires public school districts to work with local law enforcement to conduct drills to prepare for a shooting incident once a school year at every school building.

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