Tracked and Traced: Safety vs. Surveillance in Dearborn Public Schools

Dearborn Public Schools is one of many districts ramping up security efforts in response to mass shootings, but some warn the methods could have harmful consequences.

exterior of an administrative office building with a sign that reads, "Dearborn Schools Administrative Service Center."

Dearborn Schools Administrative Service Center.

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In this episode:

  • New agreement between schools and police in Dearborn for live feeds of high schools
  • Chris Gilliard on digital proctoring and surveillance of students

The 2018 Parkland mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School claimed the lives of 17 people and traumatized thousands more. Three years later, that tragedy still haunts Dearborn Public Schools Superintendent Glenn Maleyko.

“My biggest nightmare is a potential active shooter situation,” he says to members of the Dearborn City Council. It’s September, and the meeting has a thin crowd of in-person attendees. 

This evening, Maleyko is encouraging council members to adopt an agreement that could help the school system better protect its students and staff. While the district has security cameras in high school cafeterias, hallways and other common spaces, they are not present in classrooms. 

Now, under a new deal, the local police will have live access to these video feeds to help officers respond to threats of mass harm, like a school shooting, more quickly and efficiently. 

But the district’s argument failed to sway some residents. During the public comment period, a few share their grievances. 

“I would like to hear, like, a real life scenario where what they’re asking for is actually going to help. Because based on what we know from previous shootings, it happens fast.” — Daniel Domitar

Leonard Wright moves toward the microphone and casts doubt on the plan. 

“Technology is a great thing,” he says. “But everybody sitting up here recognizes that it has been used for nefarious means.” 

Daniel Domitar takes his turn.  He questions whether the agreement could be effective in stopping a tragedy at all.

“I would like to hear, like, a real life scenario where what they’re asking for is actually going to help. Because based on what we know from previous shootings, it happens fast,” he says. “By the time they figure it out, it’s too late. The damage is done. How is this going to prevent that?” 

But Superintendent Maleyko says too much is at stake if they fail to prepare.  

“I do not want to be here down the line to say only if we used the technology that we had, that could have saved the life of a child,” he says.  

After about an hour of discussion, council members unanimously approved the agreement between schools and the police. 

‘Seconds Count’ 

Learning institutions across the nation are facing increasing pressure to keep students and staff safe. School shootings were on the rise last year — 34 took place at K-12 schools, according to an Education Week analysis. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 there were 10. In 2018 and 2019 there were 24.

Experts stress that school shootings remain statistically rare. But Dearborn Public Schools, which serves over 20,000 students, is preparing for these worst case scenarios.

One of the 34 K-12 mass shootings in 2021 was at Oxford High School in Michigan.

John Leacher, the district’s health, safety and security supervisor says “seconds count,” when crises evolve in real time — like an active shooter situation or medical emergency. He’s one of the administrators who will oversee how the live camera footage will be monitored.

With quick access to video feeds, officers responding to the situation would have a better chance of knowing exactly where an emergency is happening. 

“This is to prepare us in case of what we hope never happens,” Leacher says. “The ultimate worst possible case scenario.”

Some of the district’s buildings, especially its high schools, are massive, making a tactical response even more challenging. Leacher says that’s why the agreement between Dearborn Public Schools and the police department is important.

“What we’ve got implemented here is the ability to potentially know where a potential shooter is immediately, as the emergency is unfolding,” he says. 

The evolving school surveillance landscape 

The use of video surveillance systems in schools is not new. Most K-12 districts have some type of camera system monitoring spaces inside buildings. Generally, they exist to secure school campuses but also deter bad behavior. 

And at least three states have passed laws allowing districts to install video cameras in special education settings. They say the legislation is to protect students from potential abuse or clear a teacher’s name if accused of inappropriate conduct. 

While Fourth Amendment rights protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures, some legal scholars have pointed out that these protections have declined for students over the last three decades. A series of Supreme Court rulings gave school officials more power to enforce orderly and safe environments, which paved the way for more heightened school surveillance systems. 

In the era of school shootings, new technologies have accelerated. 

Odis Johnson Jr. is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.

“We’re also seeing the introduction of AI and facial recognition technologies,” he says. “And they’re now building school buildings with holes above the door so that drones can fly in.”

And when students began learning virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, more digital surveillance came with it. Some districts hired third party companies to monitor student email accounts or social media activity, or purchased software that tries to detect cheating.

More school surveillance may create “a climate of fear” 

With all of these sophisticated technologies, has surveillance actually been effective in stopping a school shooting? Johnson says no.

“There is no connection between the presence of these technologies and surveillance, and rates of school shootings,” he says. “So I think that’s really important, we have no evidence that the inclusion of SROS or video footage has somehow made the shootings less likely.”

SROs stands for school resource officers, which are basically police officers assigned to schools. 

In fact, Johnson says that studies, including his own research, reveal something else: these systems often disproportionately harm students of color. 

“We do know that the presence of these technologies do in fact — relate to higher suspension rates, higher exclusionary discipline, and higher referral rates to authority,” he says. 

“It really does impact kids’ perspectives about schools, whether they’re safe, whether they’re themselves perceived as suspects, when they come to school. Those things then relate to feelings of school connectedness, belongingness, trust.” 

“I’m offended by it, because that is not what we as educational professionals are here to do.” — David Mustonen, Dearborn Public Schools

Some Dearborn activists have been critical of the district’s agreement because they worry the cameras will be used to prosecute Black and brown students.

Alexandria Hughes is an activist with Accountability for Dearborn. Hughes says school surveillance creates “a climate of fear.” 

“In school, you’re there to learn and, you know, make friends, to grow up and learn different lessons and to develop in schools,” she says. “They shouldn’t have to worry about being arrested. And you know, that’s a bit concerning because this is children. These are people who are just trying to become the best version of themselves.”

David Mustonen is the Communications Director for Dearborn Public Schools. He rejects claims that the technology will be used to target and discriminate against students. 

“It really insults me to think that somebody dares, says that this district — and all that we are doing, and all that we have done throughout the years, and the number of resources that we put forth, to make sure that students are successful with a 95% graduation rate in this district — that someone would insinuate that we are here to put kids in prison,” he says.

“I’m incensed by that. I’m infuriated by that. And I’m offended by it, because that is not what we as educational professionals are here to do. And that’s not what we do in Dearborn.” 

Abbas Wazne is a sophomore at Fordson High School in Dearborn. He says he has mixed feelings on the situation, adding that many of his classmates aren’t aware of the district’s agreement with the local police.

On one hand, Wazne says it is the job of the police to keep students safe and it doesn’t bother him if he and his classmates are monitored in the event of a real threat. But all this surveillance still makes him feel uncomfortable.  

“And it’s weird because like, school’s supposed to be a safe place,” Wazne says. “But now they’re watching us and they’re being able to listen to us wherever we are.”

A Broken Trust 

Dearborn residents have a reason to be skeptical of being watched. With the draw of the auto industry attracting immigrants from countries like Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria since the early 1900s — Dearborn is now known as the city with the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States. 

Following the 9/11 attacks, Arab and Muslim families in the city became a target for government surveillance and humiliating harassment — all in the name of national security.

“I think a school setting should be a safe setting for parents, students, families to enter without the worry of, ‘am I being recorded right now, who is seeing this?’” says Zienab Fahs, the safe spaces director at Michigan’s chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. 

Islamic Center of America
Dearborn is home to the largest mosque in the U.S.

Fahs says more surveillance could further erode community trust in Dearborn, where some families are recent immigrants.

“So for them to be walking into a school,” she says, “unaware of whether or not their whereabouts are being recorded, filmed, shared with other local or federal law enforcement agencies — is extremely problematic to the Dearborn community.” 

However the district says it’s not implementing this agreement in order to identify students’ residency status. Student information is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but there could be exceptions.

Law enforcement officials have the right to obtain student information as part of an investigation, but only when going through the legal system and providing court documents.

Despite the city’s painful history and the distrust that comes with it, Dearborn district officials, activists, parents, and students have found some common ground: addressing the growing mental health needs and challenges of students. 

To that end, the district has hired more social workers in recent years and is working to promote mental health and wellness across its schools.

‘A nationwide tragedy’

Two months after the city council meeting in Dearborn, tragedy struck 35 miles away. 

The city of Oxford, Michigan, suffered immeasurable grief and loss when a 15-year-old sophomore allegedly opened fire at Oxford High School, killing four students. The suspect has since been charged as an adult and is facing 24 counts, including first degree murder and terrorism. His parents have also been charged with involuntary manslaughter. 

Undersheriff Mike McCabe addresses media at the Oxford High School shooting.

“This is an American high school in Michigan. That is a crime scene,” says Paula Tutman, a local news reporter from WDIV was on the scene at Oxford High School the day of the shooting.

“Now there’s some important evidence inside because this is a school that was also well equipped with surveillance video,” she says. “What the undersheriff told us is that they will be going over this video, but it is very likely that from start to finish, they will be able to see what happens.”

Oxford ignited another reckoning about how to keep students and staff safe in schools. In the days following, a cascade of copycat threats befell districts across Michigan. Dozens of schools briefly shut their doors out of an abundance of caution. 

School safety grants are once again available to districts that want to ramp up their security efforts, which could mean even more school surveillance. 

Right now in Dearborn, video cameras are limited to high schools. But with more funding, some officials say they could expand to every school, including elementary, to make the district a safer place. 

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Tracked and Traced is supported by the Pulitzer Center, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and MSUFCU.

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  • Eleanore Catolico
    Eleanore Catolico is Civic Reporter with 101.9 WDET, covering local affairs with the Detroit Documenters program. She enjoys techno.