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Security cameras have long been in place in K-12 schools in the U.S., but a Seattle-based company is now offering software to schools for free that would equip existing cameras with facial recognition technology.

A Seattle-based company is hoping its technology can make schools safer and is offering new facial recognition software to K-12 schools across the country for free.

Created by a company called RealNetworks, the SAFR program integrates into schools’ existing digital security cameras as a way to recognize students, staff and visitors in real time. It can be used for a variety of tasks, from vandalism and theft prevention to gatekeeping for school entry to monitoring for potential human threats inside or outside a school.

“School safety has become one of the top national issues in the United States in 2018,” said Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks, in a release. “We are proud to give our leading-edge SAFR for K-12 technology solution to every elementary, middle and high school in America and Canada. We hope this will help make schools safer.”

What’s new here isn’t the use of security cameras. Those have long been in place in schools across the country. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 81 percent of K-12 public schools were utilizing security cameras as recently as of the 2015-16 school year.

However, the way those cameras are utilized differs from the real-time monitoring feature offered by SAFR.

”One of the areas that security cameras have been used for quite a while is really about being able to see something that’s happened really more after the fact,” said Dr. Robert Sigrist, director of student services for the St. Joseph School District. “Probably has been less about preventative and more about putting a timeline together.”

Think instances of vandalism, burglaries or reported incidents of bullying.

While student and staff safety is of “paramount” importance and the district is “always looking for ways to improve,” Sigrist said integration of facial recognition technology likely would require a lot of vetting before it was implemented locally.

“Facial recognition, I think it’s such a new technology that probably there would have to be some pretty serious thought go into something like that. You would want to have some pretty well-established guidelines in place,” Sigrist said.

It hasn’t taken long for the technology to draw criticism from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which wrote that the facial recognition “has the potential to turn every step a student takes into evidence of a crime” in response to reports that a New York school district planned to purchase such a system for its schools.

”Big Brother should have no seat in New York public schools,” Stefanie Coyle and John Curr II wrote for the organization in June.

Still, the technology has, according to SAFR, been “successfully” piloted by a small private school in Seattle as a way to verify and grant or deny entrance of adult visitors to the school.

RealNetworks touts SAFR as a way to help schools “focus in real time, and better analyze potential risks, such as expelled students, substance dealers, and those who pose a threat both from within and outside the school.”

Zach McNulty can be reached at zach.mcnulty@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowMcNulty.