Changes to Lockport City School District's facial recognition program are almost good enough to allow the district to use it, the State Education Department said Wednesday.
In a letter to district Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley, the department said that if the district makes a few more policy tweaks to prevent students' photos from being programmed into the system, the system can be used.
Bradley said the Lockport Board of Education will consider the changes sought by the state.
The district spent $1.4 million on the Aegis system: 300 digital cameras, servers and software for what is believed to be the first school use of a security technology more often found in airports, casinos and government buildings.
But the Education Department had stopped Lockport's plans to switch on the controversial Aegis system because of student privacy concerns.
The Lockport Board of Education sought to address those concerns in September by amending its policy on use of the system to delete photos of suspended students from the list of those whose entry into schools would trigger an alarm.
Last week, Bradley said the system's rollout was off for an indefinite period because the department hadn't responded to that policy change.
Wednesday, the department responded.
Chief Privacy Officer Temitope Akinyemi was pleased that the policy now says that no student data would be "created or maintained" by the facial recognition system.
"I would like to highlight additional steps the District must take to make it even clearer that students have been removed from the operation of the facial recognition system completely," Akinyemi wrote.
The letter directed Lockport to add a section "to clearly set forth the prohibition that the facial recognition system will never be used to create or maintain student data, and that in no event shall a District student be placed in the Aegis system database, regardless of whether the student would otherwise fall within one of the categories set forth in the Maintenance of Databases section of the policy or the policy in general."
That means a student's photo could not be programmed in even if the student is on another list of banned persons, such as registered Level 2 or 3 sex offenders or those barred from school property by court order.
Akinyemi directed that Lockport should definitely rule out using the Aegis system for student disciplinary purposes.
The Lockport policy now says: "Such information may be used as appropriate for disciplinary reasons, and may be shared with law enforcement or other governmental authorities as required or permitted by law."
That should be deleted, "or clarify in the policy that this language does not apply to students," Akinyemi wrote.
If the School Board does that and communicates the revisions to all parents, guardians, students and staff members, the use of the Aegis system will be allowed.
"However, the Department recommends that the District work with its local counsel to ensure that all other applicable laws and regulations are met and that the civil rights of all individuals are also protected when it comes to the District’s use of technology," the letter said.
The equipment has been installed in 10 school buildings and the district office as part of a general security upgrade that cost more than $3.8 million.
The state has reimbursed the district for nearly $3 million of that money so far from the proceeds of a Smart Schools Bond Act approved in a statewide referendum.
"The District will continue with the initial implementation phase of its enhanced security system, which includes staff training and system optimization, and will continue to evaluate the timing for full implementation of the object and facial recognition components of the system," Bradley said in a statement. "The District looks forward to utilizing this available technology to enhance the safety and security of the District’s students, staff and visitors."