(TNS) — Members of the New York Civil Liberties Union took their fight against facial recognition systems in schools to a local audience on Tuesday at the Lockport Public Library.

Since 2018, an intense public debate has erupted in Lockport and nationally over the district installing a facial and object recognition system — with the New York Civil Liberties Union asking for the facial recognition component to be removed.

Tuesday’s forum was the first time a lengthy public discussion was organized on the surveillance system, part of which has been in use since January.

Lockport resident Jim Shultz, the most prominent critic of the system, started things off.

“The issue here is this system and whether it does or does not protect our students fro the money that’s been spent on it. And what are the privacy implications,” he told the crowd. “This is the kind of community discussion and diverse community discussion that would have been great to have had before we wrote the check for all of this.”

Shultz used the metaphor of “Where’s Waldo” to illustrate how the district’s technology is supposed to work.

“You’re supposed to look on the page amidst all these other characters and find Waldo. This is essentially the same methodology that the facial recognition cameras operate on. They operate based on a database. They are scanning and looking for specific people. They are looking for the specific people that are in the database. The problem of course is there isn’t a database of people who are school shooters,” Shultz said.

He stressed that it doesn’t matter necessarily what the current administrators promise, but rather the technical capacity of system because policies can change.

Jayde McDonald, a 2015 Lockport High School graduate, said her main concerns with the technology were the possibility for misidentification of minorities, which facial recognition is prone to do, according to studies.

“I do not think that a facial recognition system of any kind would be useful in protecting both students and teachers,” MacDonald said.

Stefanie Coyle, the deputy director of NYCLU’s Education Policy Center, said a bill proposed by Assembly Member Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, is a solution available to pause the installation of systems and force the state education department to better study the issue.

Coyle said the difference between a surveillance system and Lockport’s is that the district system is tracking people’s biometric data. She also pointed out that the state education department has not passed specific regulations for biometric data.

Attendees offered a variety of questions and comments during the meeting.

“The manipulation and reprogramming of these things can be done,” one man said.

Another attendee suggested the solution to school safety is ensuring districts have counselors and mentors on hand to talk with students if they need help.

“Rather than put (the students) in surveillance and act like they’re in prison,” the woman said.

After the meeting, Coyle said she felt the forum went well but expressed a desire to see Lockport school administrators hold a forum of their own.

“I’m so happy that so many community members came out. But I’m also discouraged because it’s very clear the school district never answered any of these question and didn’t put out any information,” Coyle said.

Superintendent Michelle Bradley released a statement right before the start of the forum, which she did not attend.

“... NYCLU is opposed to facial recognition technology under virtually any circumstances,” Bradley wrote. “The district truly hopes that NYCLU will allow the diversity of community perspectives to be shared during the town hall, and not just the voices of those who – like NYCLU — are inalterably opposed to facial recognition technology.”

Bradley also pointed out when the system went live in January district policy stated no students would be put in the facial recognition database.

The district spent $1.4 million of the $4.2 million allocated to it through the New York’s Smart Schools Bond Act to acquire and install the system, one of the first of its kind in any American school. The system relies on the Aegis software suite created by Canadian-based SN Technologies.

The facial recognition software works by using a database of flagged individuals and sending an alert to district personnel when a flagged person is detected on school property. The object recognition feature would reportedly detect 10 types of guns and alert certain district personnel, as well as law enforcement, if a weapon is detected.

©2020 the Niagara Gazette (Niagara Falls, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.