CSSJC Raises Concerns About Cameras In New Elementary School And Failure Of Town To Resolve July 5 Incident


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Report on the Meeting of the Community Safety And Social Justice Committee (CSDSJC), November 9, 2022

Present: Allegra Clark (co-chair), Dee Shabazz (co-chair), Debora Ferreira, Pat Ononibaku, Philip Avila, Freke Ete

Staff: Earl Miller (Director of CRESS),, Pamela Nolan Young Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Jennifer Moyston ( Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and staff liaison)

Seven members of the public attended including Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3)

The meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded.

The meeting was called to order at 6:10 p.m.

Security Cameras In New Elementary School
The CCSJC received a request from School Committee member Jennifer Shiao to offer an opinion on the proposal of the committee, raised at their October 18 meeting, to install security cameras in the new elementary school. The proposal, still being formulated and not yet available in writing, was broached by School Superintendent Mike Morris in response to a request from lead architect Donna DiNisco for design advice concerning the placement of cameras in the new building. That discussion can be viewed here (from approximately 1:43- 1:58).

DiNisco reported that typically, the goal of the cameras in schools is to enhance safety for staff and students, though there was little discussion of precisely how cameras do this. She said that it is common today to place cameras in all stairwells and main corridors and, less frequently, in community spaces like libraries or cafeterias, but not in classrooms, and the design team is approaching a point where a decision will need to be made about camera placement. Morris reported that in the previous week, he and School Committee member Ben Herrington attended a meeting with Amherst public safety officials and first responders including representatives from the Fire Department, Police Department, and CRESS, to collect their thoughts on cameras in schools. All supported installing cameras in the new building, noting the importance for safety of being able to monitor comings and goings. Both Morris and Herrington said that they thought video monitoring of the outside of the building was most important. Morris emphasized that the cameras would not be used for surveillance, and that there are strict protocols in place that severely limit access to videos. Access would require permission of the superintendent and would be granted only in instances of safety or vandalism. Shiao pointed out that people from historically marginalized identities are likely to feel more uncomfortable with camera surveillance than other people and asked that an opinion on the matter be solicited from the CSSJC. Irv Rhodes, who is a School Committee member, disagreed and said that cameras in elementary schools are a necessity for safety and that marginalized people are not disadvantaged in any way by their presence. The matter will be taken up again by the School Committee at its November meeting.

Members of the CCSJC were not supportive of the proposal. The  strongest concern, voiced by several members, was  that no clear reason for installing cameras has been offered by the School Committee.

Debora Ferreira asked, “What’s to ensure that they won’t be used for surveillance? This would encroach on privacy. If there’s not a strong reason for it, then why are we doing it?”

Pat Ononibaku said that she feared that surveillance would be used particularly against children of color.

Co-chair Dee Shabazz said she saw lots of red flags in the proposal. She cited Simone Brown’s book Dark Matters: On The Surveillance Of Blackness, which shows how surveillance data are all too often used to enforce racism. “It’s just another way of tracking our kids,” Shabazz said. “And let’s have a clear statement from the School District and School Committee on the appropriate reason for installing cameras in our school. What’s the responsibilities of those folks who will be accessing those cameras? Who will have access? What will happen to the data? How long will data be kept? We need to know the answers to these questions.” (Note: the answers to some of these questions, including the disposition of surveillance data, are in the town’s Surveillance Technology bylaw adopted in November of 2021.  According to Morris, the school system has its own surveillance technology protocols in place. However, these have not been presented in full.)

Philip Avila asked why surveillance cameras are only being proposed for the new elementary school.

All agreed that they need more information and that no justification for installing cameras has been presented yet at either the school committee meeting or in the email that they received on the matter. They said CSSJC members will submit their questions about the cameras to the co-chairs, who will forward them to them to the School Committee in advance of its next meeting.

Update On The Amherst 9
The committee reviewed the proceedings of their joint marathon meeting with the Town Council on November 1 and lamented that after more than four months they are not even close to a resolution of the July 5 incident between the police and BIPOC youth, and that their relationship with the council and town manager remains fraught. They expressed frustration at the failure of the town government to address this incident in a timely and effective way, and at the town’s reluctance to meaningfully include the CSSJC as a partner in seeking a resolution. The discussion of the Town Council will be continued at a meeting on November 14, dedicated solely to that subject. CSSJC members noted that they were not asked to participate in the meeting nor was their input sought on the relevant motions to be taken up. They noted that several of the key issues they have emphasized have been minimized or struck from original motions, although they  acknowledged that some of the proposed new motions address some of their concerns. They expressed dismay that information such as that presented in a letter from parent William Stewart, who witnessed the event and disputes the Amherst Police (APD) report, has been largely omitted from the council discussion, and noted that neither members of the council nor the police have reached out to CSSJC member Pat Ononibaku, who was appointed by the parents of the Amherst 9 to be their spokesperson and to advocate on their behalf. They agreed that the committee would author its own comprehensive report and make it available to the public in order to remedy the omissions of the Town Council discussions and the APD’s omissions and distortions. 

The Discussion
Ononibaku requested a list of contractors and consultants that have served the APD over the last 10 years and was informed by Jennifer Moyston that that information can be found on the APD web site.

Co-chair Allegra Clark presented the motion by Council President Lynn Griesemer to be taken up first at the council meeting on November 14, and asked whether it would be useful to frame a CSSJC response to it.

Ferreira responded, “We were at that meeting [on November 1] for over six hours with a demand that something needed to be done and nothing came out of that meeting. It’s very frustrating. What are we going to do to send a message to the council that this is not OK? I feel it’s disrespectful that CSSJC has not been invited to be part of [the November 14] meeting. I don’t care if they are debating the motions. We ought to be part of this. And the motion — I don’t agree with it. The language is very soft in terms of follow-up. It doesn’t have any of the BIPOC-majority groups (e.g. African Heritage Reparations Assembly, Human Rights Commission, CSSJC) involved front and center — and we need to be involved. [Note: in Councilor Michele Miller’s motion, defeated by a 6-7 vote at the council meeting on November 1, centered these BIPOC majority groups. Miller said that that the motion offered a course of action to address concerns in a manner that would produce reconciliation and healing and would involve “committees that are composed largely of Black and Brown residents in a community in which an overwhelmingly disproportionate level of power is in the hands of white people.” ] I don’t have any confidence in the Town Manager coming up with something that is going to address our concerns and our demands. They continue to waste our time and the time of the youth and the families.”

Ononibaku said, “I think that the Town Council doesn’t want the whole truth to come out. I suggest that CSSJC undertakes to write a comprehensive report on what happened that includes the voices of those who were there. There will not be healing and reconciliation in this town without a formal apology, without reparations, and without a full exposition of what happened.” Later, she said that“we want to make sure that the voices of the real witnesses get written into the record and we’re not going to fight with the TC about that. We’ll produce our own report and make it part of the public record.”

Shabazz said, “My main problem with all of the [Town Council] motions is that they do not include the police chief taking responsibility and an actual apology. The other thing it doesn’t include is a timeline [for remedies and actions].”  Shabazz supported the idea of CSSJC writing a comprehensive report because “it’s looking like the town is not going to do that. The motions fail to produce a solution and an answer for our community.”

Freke Ete said he did not have an issue with the  (or lack thereof) in the council motions and that it would not be difficult to add timelines. He said that the town needs a report that “gets to the bottom of the disagreements that persist over what happened  [and] we (CSSJC) can amplify the voices of the youth, something that doesn’t seem to be happening now.” He said that the council is “doing what legislative bodies do” and that “the process is often long and frustrating”, and that the CSSJC should embrace that and do what they can to improve it, but not expect more than what the councilors are capable of doing in a legislative context. “The process is meant to be slow and frustrating,” he said.

Philip Avila said, “I think that there was an effort on the part of Town Council to push us out of the conversations. Hence we haven’t been invited to participate at the next meeting. We were written into earlier versions of the motions but now we’ve been struck out. I will voice my frustration that this does not seem to be a high priority for the Town Council and efforts to bring in voices other than that of the Town Manager have not been successful. So I support CSSJC writing their own report to hold the town and the police accountable to the facts.”

Shabazz said, “This is a failure of our Town Manager to act proactively on behalf of the young people and their families. The TC has a responsibility to push the TM to act. There are things that could have been done, that this governing body could undertake and they have not. It is a failure of both entities to respond to an instance where black and brown bodies have been unfairly treated.”

Onoibaku reminded the group that it is the role of the CSSJC to provide guidance to departments in the town.

There was some discussion about an added motion in the Town Council packet for its November 14 meeting that specifically mandates an apology and reparations, hiring a consultant to assist in creating a Resident Advisory Board to handle complaints about police, and creating a youth empowerment center. (Note: the link to the packet is no longer active but should be accessible by Monday November 14. The Indy will post a link when it becomes available. Also, the motion’s author has not been indicated yet.) Although Shabazz felt that this motion gets closer to what the committee has been looking for, not all members agreed, The committee agreed to draft a statement addressing their critique of the process and the motions, as well as highlighting the areas of agreement,  prior to November 14.

Ononibaku agreed to draft the CSSJC report on the July 5 incident with input from the other members.

Clark wanted to make sure that members were aware of recent complaints about both the Amherst and the UMass police departments:

The arrest of a young black UMass student after an altercation  with a UMass police officer and

A rebuke of the APD by the Hampshire College administration over the rough treatment of a Hampshire student on campus.

CRESS Report
CRESS Director Earl Miller reported that he has been out with COVID but other staff have stepped in to keep CRESS at full operation. He provided an update on the program’s activities as follows:

  • CRESS will not be operating on Thanksgiving or Christmas  this year but will be operational 365 days/year beginning on January 7, 2023. 
  • Miller’s absence due to COVID highlighted the precariousness of maintaining full coverage in the face of staffing vulnerabilities.
  • The majority of calls CRESS has been responding to are wellness calls. They are also doing a lot of housing work.
  • CRESS is working to firm up collaborations with other local service providers

Questions From the Committee
Ononibaku stated that she is nervous about CRESS going into the school system. She would like to know more about the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) worries about CRESS becoming over-extended.

Miller responded that the MOU is clear: CRESS will not be in the schools to surveil them and their engagement with students will always be consensual. He said  the town has been clear that it does not want police at the schools and that CRESS is in accord with that intention. He said the MOU will allow CRESS to help the schools connect with support services when they need them and he encouraged people to “watch us do the work and let us know if they see something concerning”.

Shabazz wanted more information on how CRESS is working with other social services in Amherst like Craig’s Doors and Amherst Community Connections. She also voiced concern that CRESS would be taking the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays off, adding that these are the times that mental health services are most needed. She also asked when the data that CRESS is collecting will be available.

Miller responded that CRESS is working with a class at UMass on data evaluation and that he’d like to get those data to the public asap. He suggested that people check out the Durham, North Carolina responders’ website for an indication of what can be done with data and said that CRESS will have a robust annual report. He confirmed that after January 7,  CRESS will be fully staffed and active 365 days/year. And he reported that meets monthly with local service providers. “We’re trying to make sure that our practices line up with others.
We want to collaborate. We just got a grant to join a council of governments learning community that includes a bunch of regional hospitals”, he said.

Ferreira voiced her desire that CRESS become the primary agency responsible for responding to noise complaints, and Miller said that this is already starting to happen in the downtown area.

Clark wanted to know about where calls are coming from and what Miller sees as the ideal budgetary requests for CRESS as well as its most pressing staffing problems.

Miller replied that the department’s dispatching equipment (radios) has arrived and the responders have begun to train on it; he expects his team to be up to speed with communications by January 7. He also said  that he had just received his budget worksheet but it’s already pretty clear that CRESS needs some supervisory help. “There’s arguments to stay small and also to expand, and that’s a conversation we need to be having as we think about next year’s budget,” he said.

DEI Report
DEI Director Pamela Nolan Young listed several trainings that she and Assistant DEI Director Jennifer Moyston had attended in recent weeks; noted that the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) has agreed to serve as subject matter experts in the town’s self-assessment on hiring practices (Amherst has been a member of GARE for the last two years); 

She noted that she has begun to meet with Finance Director Sean Mangano about the department budget and that  her priority is to hire a consultant to help create  a Residents Advisory Board to handle complaints about the police; and noted that  she participated in the search for the recently appointed Human Resources Director and will be a member of the search committee for the Town Comptroller position.

Shabazz expressed concern that the listing of BIPOC-owned businesses in Amherst is “impoverished’ and that the Chamber of Commerce, which maintains the list, has historically shown little interest in BIPOC-owned or managed businesses. Ononibaku explained that the list is limited to Chamber members and that BIPOC owned businesses, including her own, often find membership in the Chamber to be undesirable or too costly for a small operation. Shabazz and Ononibaku asked Young to think about how the town can be more attentive to the needs  of BIPOC-owned businesses.

Member Report
Shabazz reported that a large and diverse group attended attended the Mojuba event sponsored by the anti-racist group Bridge For Unity. l. The event centered on a ceremony honoring African ancestors and included small group discussions about. Shabazz said It was a good opportunity for people to celebrate together and to think deeply about these issues and said that the small group conversations were helpful.

The Amherst Health Department will conduct a COVID-19 vaccine clinic on December 5 and those who show up will get a $75 gift card. 

Public Comment
Vira Cage said she opposes installation of cameras at elementary schools.

Lauren Mills reported that she has a child in the middle school who doesn’t feel safe.,“Something is not right with our kids. I hear the teachers pleading that they need help but I don’t understand why there is such poor communications with parents. Maybe it has something to do with post-COVID,” she said. She asked the CSSJC to sponsor listening sessions in the community for parents of school-aged children to further find out what youth and parents are feeling.

Next Meeting
The next meeting of the CSSJC will be on Wednesday, December 7, at 6:00 p.m.

The meeting adjourned at 9:30 p.m.

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1 thought on “CSSJC Raises Concerns About Cameras In New Elementary School And Failure Of Town To Resolve July 5 Incident

  1. Aren’t 2 of the committee members employees/ former employees of the University of Massachusetts where over 1,600 cameras have been in use for decades? A very strict policy is/ has been in place at the University where camera footage is only used to investigate criminal activity and not to determine employee/ student misconduct. Footage is generally only maintained until “over written” with new footage. Draft a comprehensive policy that mirrors that of the University, or other similar schools.

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