KANSAS CITY, Mo. - In the wake of a reported sexual assault inside a Kansas City Public Schools building, a 41 Action News investigation uncovered problems with the district's relatively new $1 million security camera system.
41 Action News learned some of the cameras inside Southwest Early College Campus were not working properly for weeks prior to an alleged rape, preventing police from gathering video evidence that potentially could have helped the criminal case.
While gathering details about that incident, 41 Action News also discovered a series of other communication breakdowns and technical glitches that have kept security cameras inoperable for extended periods of time inside several KCPS high schools.
No video evidence on date of reported rape
Like most other high schools around the Kansas City area, SWECC has a network of security cameras that keep an eye on students from the time they show up for class to the minute they step on the bus to go home.
On August 29, a teen girl told police she had been raped inside an empty room that was usually locked and secured. The student told detectives two teen boys had grabbed her in a hallway and carried her to the room where the alleged assault occurred during the school day.
Police arrested the accused teens, ages 15 and 14, and booked them in the Juvenile Justice Center. They are each charged with a count of first-degree rape and have adjudication hearings scheduled in December.
The incident sparked news coverage at SWECC, which had stayed out of recent headlines following a tumultuous transition period several years ago during the district's massive "rightsizing" plan.
41 Action News received a tip the security cameras in the area of the building where the alleged sexual assault were not working.
A district spokesman confirmed this detail and said they were fixed the following day. However, tech workers could not recover any of the archived video that could have provided evidence for the criminal case because it didn't exist.
Kansas City police would not comment specifically on the case or the security camera problem, only saying video evidence is always helpful if it is available.
"That's disappointing because we spend millions of dollars as a district and community on security cameras. You would hope the system would be operational," said Elisha Verge, an active parent leader at SWECC who has two students at the school.
KCPS installed the cameras at SWECC and five other district high schools in 2011 for a price tag of roughly $1 million.
Emails reveal frustration, communication problems with security cameras
An open records request submitted by 41 Action News revealed there were repeated requests to get the cameras fixed prior to the reported rape.
A string of emails suggested communication barriers and frustration from the district's security staff about getting the situation resolved.
On August 16, a SWECC safety officer noticed a problem with one of the system's servers. He reported the problem to ACS Electronic Systems, Inc, the company that installed the cameras and also is under contract to monitor and service the system upon request.
According to the emails, three days passed without any word of a service appointment, so the security officer contacted ACS again.
On August 22, an ACS tech worker showed up at SWECC after school hours and could not gain access to the room with the surveillance equipment. Security officers tried to reschedule a service appointment again to no avail.
The problem remained unresolved for several more days. On August 28, one day before the alleged sexual assault, Director of Safety & Security Marcus Harris expressed frustration that the system had been down for a couple of weeks.
"I will commit to providing full access to all areas that are needed to resolve the problems," Harris wrote to an ACS employee.
ACS confirmed an appointment of August 30, but that turned out to be one day too late.
"The whole thing kind of makes you wonder," said Verge. "It just doesn't seem like it was a priority."
SWECC security camera problem not an isolated incident
41 Action News also discovered problems with security cameras at several other KCPS high schools.
The reasons for the technical issues are varied:
• At SWECC, an unknown number of cameras did not work for the entire month of April. This example highlighted more communication problems between the district and ACS, according to emails obtained by 41 Action News
• At Paseo High School, 13 cameras were not working for several weeks at the beginning of the school year. Those issues were blamed on a power surge
• At East High School, 11 cameras are not working because a server and cabling were damaged during a major reconstruction
project over the summer
• And at Northeast High School, a server and camera disappeared during a construction project
Superintendent Stephen Green said he heard about the communication breakdown and other security cameras problems as the school district investigated details surrounding the sexual assault.
"I was very much disturbed and concerned," Green told 41 Action News. "We are working through it together with ACS to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Green said district leaders and ACS sat down for a "real talk" to discuss strategies for improvement and streamline communication.
Robert Harper, ACS president, said one major problem was there were more than a dozen people from KCPS who could request service on the camera system.
"This led to duplicate communications and often what was deemed a service issue was really just a communication or training issue," Harper told 41 Action News.
Moving forward, Green said the district is working on the number of KCPS personnel who can request a service call. Harper said he's also offered a dedicated field person who can be KCPS' sole point of contact.
"To their credit, they were willing to sit down, roll up their sleeves, and work toward a mutual agreement that I felt comfortable with," Green said.
The current maintenance, monitoring and repair contract will be up for renewal later this month and require a vote of approval from school board members.
Security cameras contract has been under microscope
It is not the first time the security cameras have been under scrutiny.
Last year, a 41 Action News investigation questioned a possible conflict of interest between a high-ranking KCPS employee and a staffer at ACS. Several sources claimed ACS won the security camera contracts because of a personal relationship, while other vendors were mysteriously disqualified from the bidding process.
Green, who took over as superintendent shortly after the district purchased the security cameras, ordered an internal audit . The review recommended KCPS adopt a policy that addressed conflicts of interest between employees and potential vendors. It also found "significant issues" surrounding the bidding process.
During an October interview with 41 Action News, Green sidestepped discussion about the alleged conflict of interest and focused his message on student safety.
"Everyone knows very well my expectations," he said. "What I want are, as much as one can have guarantees and assurances, that we will not revisit this."
Just like the cameras, parents like Verge will be watching. The 1985 graduate now chairs SWECC's School Advisory Committee.
"Our children deserve better," Verge said. "I hope in the future, if the cameras are down, they expedite more significantly to get the problem solved."
Why has KCPS seen different results with security camera system?
Harper said his company works with more than 40 school districts and colleges in the region.
41 Action News contacted the Independence and Lee's Summit school districts, which both contract with ACS for their surveillance systems. Both districts said they are pleased with the relationship and felt equipment issues are dealt with in a timely manner.
So why is KCPS experiencing different results?
Harper said there are several significant differences between KCPS and other customers. For instance, ACS has agreements in place to regularly audit the status of security systems, but KCPS tackles this task with in-house employees.
Harper said KCPS also has a more complex process to approve repair work, which can make service issues take longer to solve. He added that many school districts have a uniform product, but KCPS has many different types, which can create problems with training and part availability.
During the recent meeting, ACS recommended several changes to improve the process. Green said many of those suggestions are under consideration.
"That speaks volumes," Verge said. "If the same vendor is installing the systems in other districts, but we are the district that seems to have all the glitches, that speaks for itself."
Ryan will be answering your questions on his reporting at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5 on Facebook.