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St. Mary's High School adds facial recognition locks

St. Mary's High School adds facial recognition locks

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ST. LOUIS • One of the city’s most established Roman Catholic high schools is upping the game when it comes to school security, becoming one of the first in the nation to install facial recognition cameras.

The system, now in its second week of use, includes cameras mounted between the double doors at the two entrances of St. Mary’s High School, 4701 South Grand Boulevard.

Photos of students, faculty, staff, volunteers and other regulars have been uploaded, allowing doors to unlock automatically for them.

The system also can be programmed to exclude people who don’t belong, such as sex offenders, disgruntled employees or relatives prohibited from contact with students or staff by restraining orders. For them, the doors remain locked and an email or text message is sent to key staff members.

School President Michael England said the installation comes on the heels of a sobering seminar on school safety he attended recently. In it, he said, a speaker noted that schools do much more to prepare for fire than violence, when the latter is more likely.

England said he knows the facial recognition system cannot stop someone from breaking through the glass doors, but he said it can help the staff better prepare for an unwanted visitor as well as know who is in the building.

He said it also helps with his biggest marketing challenge at St. Mary’s — being located in a high-crime neighborhood.

“I hear all the time, ‘That’s a great school, but oh, that neighborhood,’” England said. “Like all cities, there are pockets of the city that have issues, but we’re not doing it because we have any issues. We believe it’s a very positive step in the right direction.”

“It provides an extra layer of security, and that can’t be a bad thing,” England said. “I want to tell our families we are doing the very best we can to keep everyone safe.”

The two-camera system costs about $15,000. Right now, the school is leasing it for $500 monthly. England said he will apply for a safety grant from the Archdiocese.

The same kinds of cameras can be found inside the St. Louis Circuit Court and several area retailers and day-care operations, said Joe Spiess, a retired St. Louis police major who is co-owner of Blue Line Security Solutions Inc. He and a group of current and retired city officers developed this technology over eight years.

The company also is in talks with domestic violence shelters, and with professional sports teams to provide security for players, staff and coaches in workout facilities and executive suites. Retailers are interested in the technology to target shoplifters, bad-check writers and those involved in prescription fraud, said Phil Menendez, a retired officer and now Blue Line sales associate.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri had concerns about use of the system at the courthouse, where judges and prosecutors were allowed to target certain individuals to be excluded. But the organization’s leaders had no complaint with private companies doing as they wish. An ACLU official could not be reached for reaction about St. Mary’s.

Lindsey Sylvia, a former St. Louis Sheriff’s Department employee and co-owner of the company, said private users are not selling their databases of faces.

“Our system allows the end user to decide how to use it,” she said.

The technology is rare in education, said Joe Spiess, co-owner of Blue Line Security Solutions, and a retired St. Louis police major.

“Schools are all clamoring to do more about school security, but there are so many schools that are buzzing people in... “ Spiess said. “You don’t know who you’re letting in the school.

“This is one huge advantage. Our live feed video is also taped and anyone you want to put in there, you can, both safe and dangerous people.”

As of Friday, the St. Mary’s system had read faces about 1,400 times, with two misreads, Spiess said.

In 2007, the Nashville, Tenn., school district installed facial recognition in its buildings. Civil liberties advocates there criticized the idea, saying schools should not feel like prisons.

But Mary Pat Banach, whose 16-year-old son Michael is a sophomore at St. Mary’s, said the cameras offer “comfort,” not a sense of confinement. She has watched the company install the equipment for the past two weeks from inside the school gift shop, where she volunteers,

“I’ve always felt safe on campus, but it is just something that makes you feel comfortable because with any school, you just never know what could happen,” she said.

Quinn Wilson, 18, is one of the roughly 350 students known to the cameras of the all-boys school. He recently left the building to get something from his car, and watched as the camera’s light turned green and the doors unlocked to let him back inside.

“I’m pretty impressed,” said the senior. “We’ve never had any security problems, but it’s nice to know that our school is thinking of us and getting us the best.”

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Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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