'Big Brother' to continue watching Fairfax high school cafeterias

By Michael Alison Chandler
Friday, October 23, 2009; 12:47 PM

Surveillance cameras installed to keep hungry high school students from stealing sandwiches and snacks will keep rolling for at least one more year, the Fairfax School Board voted Thursday night.

Cameras were installed last fall in six high school cafeterias, following a report that the region's largest school system lost an estimated $1.2 million to food theft in 2007-2008. School officials said the cameras, along with a smattering of other preventative measures, helped divert some losses.

But food theft remains about a million-dollar problem, said Penny McConnell, director of food and nutrition services for the Fairfax schools.

"Our goal is to deter it," McConnell said. After another year of surveillance at the six trial schools, she will make a recommendation about whether the pilot program should be expanded district-wide.

The loss is a key financial concern, particularly in light of a projected school system budget shortfall of $176 million for the next school year.

It's also an ethical conundrum. "I don't want students to feel like they can get away with something like this and take it out into the public," McConnell said.

McConnell said theft is pervasive throughout the county and is not tied to any particular school or socioeconomic group. She conducted an anonymous survey two years ago of 10,000 high school students. Nearly 9 percent said they had taken food without paying.

The cameras, which were installed at South County Secondary School and Annandale, Mount Vernon, Westfield, Lake Braddock and Robinson high schools, cost an average of $18,000 to install. School officials estimate they deterred about $12,000 worth of losses per school so far.

McConnell also estimated another $100,000 in savings came from other reforms taken at the 25 high schools throughout the county, including controlling the number of students who can walk through the lunch line at one time or removing easy-to-pocket, pre-wrapped sandwiches and a la carte foods from shelves.

Pilfering is a common problem in school cafeterias nationwide, though its effects are not often calculated, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman at the School Nutrition Association. School officials throughout the Washington area say the often hire monitors to supervise the lunch rush or try to keep commonly snatched items such as chips and juice behind the counter.

Some other school systems, including Virginia's Hampton City public schools, also have installed video cameras to deter theft.

In Fairfax, video cameras are used on school buses and on the exterior of school buildings. Last year was the first time they were installed in cafeterias. Some school board members oppose the project, questioning whether the savings were worth the trade-off in civil liberties.

"It's inappropriate to desensitize our students at an early age to surveillance everywhere they go in the school system," said board member James L. Raney (At Large) before the vote Thursday night.

But board member Elizabeth T. Bradsher (Springfield) said the Fairfax teenagers she has talked to say stealing food at lunch is easy and commonplace. She supported the measure. "If this helps save money and puts a conscience on these kids that some of them might need, then I'm going to go for it."

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