At Camden high schools, new security cameras and controlled access

Exeutive director for school safety Anthony Bland (right) demonstrates new security camera installed at Camden High School August 21, 2014. Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard (rear) looks on following announcement of new measures to ensure Camden students are safe on their journeys to school, and that they arrive ready to learn in secure, motivating school environments. The measures include community involvement and high-tech solutions. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

Perched atop a hill, Camden High School resembles a castle, with more than 80 entrances for a student to quietly slip out of or an intruder to sneak in.

From an irate parent to a passerby seeking to use the restroom, "anybody could walk in," even through the main entrance, principal James Thompson said. "It became a problem of getting them out."

In the latest move to make students and staff at Camden High and Woodrow Wilson High, the district's flagship high schools, feel safer, School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard unveiled a new, high-tech, $1.4 million security program.

The city's largest high schools are being equipped with dozens of digital cameras and electronically monitored doors to control access.

Rouhanifard said the pilot program, funded by state and federal dollars, will improve the safety climate at the high schools for students and staff.

"While this update is overdue, Camden students will now have the more purposeful security system and safer school environment that they deserve," Rouhanifard said at a news conference at Camden High. Also present were Mayor Dana L. Redd and members of the school advisory board.

The security plan includes "safe corridors," a program for all district students that identifies safe havens at all of the fire stations in the city for any student who feels unsafe en route to or from school. Community volunteers will also be recruited to serve as "parent rangers" along the routes.

"Little else matters if you can't walk down the street, step out your front door, or attend school without fear of being a victim of a crime or otherwise violated by the thugs roaming the neighborhoods," Redd said.

In surveys, at least 50 percent of Camden students have reported feeling unsafe. Camden schools report among the highest numbers of violent incidents in the state.

For the 2012-13 school year, the latest statistics available, the district said there were 163 violent incidents as well as 18 that involved weapons.

Staff and eventually all students at the high schools will be issued ID swipe cards that will be used to gain entrance to the schools, said Anthony Bland, the district's executive director for safety. Strategically placed higher-resolution cameras will provide clearer images and a more panoramic view of the entrances, he said.

"It's not just about cameras," Bland said. "It's about enhancing the learning environment."

About 100 public school districts across the state use similar security systems, Bland said.

Camden High and Woodrow Wilson each have more than 80 access points, making it difficult to secure the sprawling school premises. Doors were often left open, making it easy for intruders to enter.

The new system will limit access to fewer than 10 locations. An alarm will alert security if an unauthorized door is opened.

The main doors will be open for students to use until the swipe cards are available in a few months, an official said.

Loretta Gooden, president of the District Parent Advisory Council, said she welcomed the enhanced security measures.

"It's something that can really help," Gooden said. "I think it's an excellent plan."

There are no immediate plans to extend the new security plan to the district's elementary and middle schools.

Rouhanifard, who was appointed a year ago to lead the state-run district, released a five-point safety plan in February.

Maps with eight zones and suggested pathways where police will increase their presence before and after school will be provided to students.

"The most important resource in our city is our children. Their safety is paramount," said Camden Metro Police Capt. Gabriel Camacho.

Camden schools will open Sept. 2.

"I'm excited about the opening," said advisory board member Martha Wilson. "Safety is the No. 1 priority."

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