What good is security equipment that doesn't work?

February 16, 2010 9:29:30 PM PST
We confronted HISD about security cameras and panic alarms left broken for months. It's another 13 Undercover exclusive. We've shown you how strangers can dangerously roam in our schools and we've exposed false security audits. And now we look at what would happen if a teacher tried to call for help, but couldn't.

A video shows terrorists opening fire in a school yard. It's graphic video, but before you shout media sensationalism, we didn't make it.

The state of Texas did.

"We wanted something that was going to emulate real," said Curtis Clay with the Texas School Safety Center. "We wanted to make sure we made people stop and think about this possibility."

"We can't play with safety and security of our students and educators," said HISD Police Chief Jimmie Dotson.

It's four in the morning. Video shows three burglars break into Lamar High School. They clearly want to get inside the locked snack bar. One of them will try to break the security camera with a hammer.

But in a lot of Houston schools, the camera might already be broken. Of 140 break-ins last year, HISD could only produce two videos.

Sometimes, quick response can help the good guys catch the bad guys. Surveillance video from Holland Middle School in 2007 documents the chase in the hallways, and the capture.

But there's evidence some broken cameras may have actually hindered the search for some suspects.

In an email, one school complained, "Can you please service the camera playback system. We had a break-in last night and cannot play back the video from the incident."

"Is there any reason why a camera should be broken for months?" we asked Byron Thurmond with HISD Communications.

"No, sir," he answered.

At Westbury High School, four years ago security cameras helped police identify the guy who raped a fifteen-year-old student in a restroom. But HISD repair records show security cameras broken at Westbury for up to 147 days. It took 100 days just to focus one camera.

A panic button could mean the difference between life and death.

"There's a panic alarm in every classroom in every school," said Thurmond.

We won't tell the bad guys where it is in the room, but we know some classrooms have gone for months with broken panic alarms. We have the repair records.

"There is no excuse why a panic alarm in a classroom should be broken for months," we said to Thurmond.

"I agree," he answered.

We found one classroom with a broken intercom system for 134 days. At one elementary school, the records show the entire system was down 39 days.

At Wainright Elementary, the intercoms in several temporary buildings were out 50 days. At Holland Middle School, 45 days.

"Those kids were left vulnerable for 45 days," we said to Thurmond.

"Yes, sir" he answered.

HISD does not currently view a broken panic alarm in a single classroom as a top priority for repair. The average repair time is about two weeks.

"I don't understand a priority system that doesn't make that a top priority," we said to Thurmond.

"I agree," he answered. "There's nothing I can say about that. I really don't know how to tell you that. We have limited resources."

HISD security audits don't even test the panic alarm system. There are no annual inspections.

"As a result of this, do you promise me we are going to have annual inspection?" we asked Thurmond.

"Yes, sir," he answered.

Two years ago, Houston voters authorized $90 million in bonds for tighter security in HISD.

"We have 183 campuses where we will install new systems and/or add to existing systems there," said Willie Burroughs with HISD construction.

The cameras will all be visible at an HISD police command station - 15,000 cameras in all. But HISD emails reveal growing frustration at campuses about the pace of installation.

''The people vandalizing our school get more brazen each time. They know we don't have any security system," read one email was saw.

"Did we inspire you?" we asked Thurmond.

"Yes sir."

Two thousand cameras have been installed just in the last few weeks after 13 Undercover starting questioning the cameras.

"Clearly our asking these questions made you do this quicker," we said to Thurmond.


Our investigation is getting results. HISD promises to assess the security weakness of dozens of schools we found unchecked and make sure panic alarms in classrooms a top priority. All the rest of the new cameras are supposed to be in by August.