When School Superintendents Market Surveillance Cameras

On April 1, Michael Fox, a respected superintendent of Demarest School District in Bergen County, New Jersey, emailed Dave Sleppin, his counterpart at nearby Fairview Public Schools, with a glowing recommendation for a security camera company called Verkada. It sells security cameras, vape detectors, and other equipment, and recently raised $205 million at a valuation of $3.2 billion.

“In the fall we upgraded all of our security cameras and added vaping sensors in the bathrooms,” Fox raved. “[Verkada] were excellent to deal with throughout the process making it seamless. The products are incredible and everyone we worked with was outstanding. My IT and Principals rave about the system. If anyone wants to call or view what we have done they are more than welcome to reach out. I highly recommend a zoom or in person meeting. If you have any other questions please let me know.”

Alone, the email reads like a friendly recommendation from one colleague to another. But Fox sent a very similar glowing message to dozens of superintendents in the county, and did so in coordination with sales reps for Verkada—a company known among school administrators largely for its aggressive and relentless promotion of itself through marketing spam.

Five days later, Fox emailed Eric Crespo, the superintendent of Weehawken Public Schools. “My district has purchased the Verkada camera system and vaping sensors for all three buildings in our district and could not be happier,” Fox said. “The service from everyone is top notch!” That same day, Fox sent identical emails to two other superintendents with the exact same language.

Copied on all the emails were ​​Wiley Bonham, a salesperson for Verkada, and a private Gmail account associated with Jerry Dargan, whom Fox introduced in emails alternately as someone who “comes with a background in law enforcement,” a “security specialist,” “neighbor,” “consultant,” “security consultant,” or “consultant for the company [Verkada].”

Dargan is a chief investigator for the Bergen County Office of Inspector General, which, according to his Linkedin, “is charged with promoting the efficiency, accountability and integrity of Bergen County government”. He previously worked for the Bergen County prosecutor’s office investigating major crimes, homicides, and for the county’s special victims unit.

Between April and August of this year, according to emails reviewed by Motherboard, Fox and Dargan made a coordinated effort with Verkada staff to sell Verkada products to local school systems. Fox used results from a survey of educators to target school systems looking to upgrade their security. Verkada regularly hosted dinners at upscale restaurants, to which Fox and Dargan invited other school officials to hear about Verkada. And Fox would follow up with them, if not cold email superintendents directly, to promote Verkada. If they were interested, Fox coached them how to use federal COVID funds to pay for the upgrades. The emails revealing this arrangement were obtained in dozens of public record requests by the security industry trade publication IPVM and shared with Motherboard.  

In an emailed statement, a Verkada spokesperson said, “Mr. Dargan and Mr. Fox have never been employed by Verkada in any capacity. As for gifts, Verkada prohibits employees from offering any kind of inappropriate gifts to anyone—including to public school or government employees. We take the claims you’ve raised seriously and are looking into the matter. If we find any violations of company policy, we will take appropriate action.” Motherboard asked the spokesperson how this company policy squares with the thousands of emails in the public records responses showing Verkada salespeople offering UberEats and Amazon gift cards to school administrators for attending sales pitches. The spokesperson replied that “after we learned that email campaigns with gift card offers were being sent to unintended audiences in the public sector, we banned the use of gift cards in promotional materials starting in August 2022.”

In an email statement responding to a list of questions, Dargan told Motherboard, “I am not a paid consultant for Verkada. I am a security consultant for third party resellers of security products.” (Verkada, like many security firms, contracts with local businesses to sell and install its products.) Bergen County spokesperson Derek Sands told Motherboard that the Office of the Inspector General, for which Dargan works, “is a civilian office under the County of Bergen’s Department of Law and has no law enforcement powers, nor does it have any jurisdiction over local boards of education. The only jurisdiction the office has is over County employee activity.” (Emphasis theirs.) Sands added that Bergen County employees are allowed to have outside employment as long as it “does not conflict with county contracts or county activities. Verkada does not have any contracts with the County of Bergen nor with any County subsidiary agencies.” 

In an email statement responding to a list of questions and an interview request, Fox said, “As a school administrator, I am a strong advocate of student and staff safety and have recommended Verkada to many school districts. The goal is to make all districts safer from bad actors. Further, I am not a paid consultant to Verkada.”

The New Jersey Department of Education declined to comment on Fox’s involvement with Verkada, but referred Motherboard to the state’s School Ethics Act, which states no school official should “undertake any employment or service, whether compensated or not, which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties.” It also prohibits “any gift, favor, loan, political contribution, service, promise of future employment, or other thing of value” intended to “directly or indirectly” influence their official duties.

Do you know anything about how security companies are marketing to public schools? We’d love to hear from you. Contact Aaron Gordon at aaron.gordon@vice.com.

“Finding when something is a conflict that violates the School Ethics Act is kind of like holding in football,” said David Rubin, a New Jersey attorney and co-author of The Ethical Educator: Pointers and Pitfalls for School Administrators. “Somebody tried to explain what holding was to me once, and the best definition I could get was it’s when you hold too much.” When briefed on the findings of this investigation, Rubin said, “All the things you are telling me certainly would be consistent with something that might not be kosher, but don’t necessarily prove it. The real question that all this would turn on is: What is the real economic relationship here? What are the expectations back and forth?”

It’s not clear what Fox—who won a Distinguished Service Award from the Bergen County Association of School Administrators in 2020—got out of the arrangement beyond fancy dinners and according to several emails a gift card with an unknown value. In an April 6 email exchange, Fox told Bonham, the Verkada salesperson, that “Jerry is excited to help close some of these districts…I know you are really close to completing some deals. I think April may rain some $$$.” 

Five days earlier—the same day he emailed Sleppin, the Fairview superintendent, about how wonderful Verkada is—Fox completed a legally mandated financial disclosure statement with the state, declaring that he receives no compensation and has no interest in any business that has a contract with his school district. (According to an email the district’s IT director sent on April 12, the district has 56 Verkada cameras and three vape sensors, with “more” of both “being installed in the future.”)

A public employee acting as a private booster is hardly unique in the surveillance and security world where, for example, police officers sometimes double as salespeople. But it is a trend that further muddles the already blurry line between promoting a useful product or service and privately benefiting from that promotion.

And the expansion of this practice into schools underscores the rapid growth of surveillance technology in the places where kids spend most of their waking hours. Privacy advocates have raised the alarm over the practice, especially regarding facial recognition, as providing little practical benefit other than to enact a microcosmic surveillance regime over students. Last year, a Verkada hack revealed the staggering scale of the company’s facial recognition reach including in public schools. A University of Michigan study recommended facial recognition platforms be banned from schools because “our analysis reveals that FR will likely have five types of implications: exacerbating racism, normalizing surveillance and eroding privacy, narrowing the definition of the ‘acceptable’ student, commodifying data, and institutionalizing inaccuracy.”

It is also not the first time Verkada has found itself adjacent to ethical questions, having previously cultivated a “bro culture” where employees used the company’s own cameras to harass coworkers, as Motherboard previously reported. Verkada initially said it “does not tolerate sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior” but had investigated the incident and “all individuals were disciplined accordingly.” After Motherboard published the story, Verkada issued a new statement saying it had reviewed its review of the incident and decided to terminate the employees responsible. “​​On Friday, I felt confident that we had dealt with this issue fully and appropriately,” co-founder and CEO Filip Kaliszan said in the statement. “However, it is clear that my handling of this incident fell short of our commitment to maintaining the supportive work environment our employees deserve.”

Whatever the precise nature of Fox’s arrangement with Verkada was—a question Motherboard asked Fox multiple times but never received a direct answer—emails suggest it was something Fox wanted to hide.

In an email chastising Bonham, the Verkada salesperson, for jumping from being blind-copied on a sales outreach into the main thread without permission, Fox explained that doing so would make it clear he had been looping in Verkada from the very beginning, before the other superintendent had expressed any interest. “The reason I get nervous with a blind copy is sometimes people don’t realize it and reply,” Fox wrote to Bonham on June 4. “I have been a sup[erintendent] in Bergen county for 12 years and have built a great reputation. Hence why I have been able to help companies and my peers. I cannot have that breached bc it means a lot to me that people trust me.”

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Verkada was founded in 2016 as a “modern security solution” company. To schools, it most prominently advertises that its security cameras offer higher resolution at lower bandwidths that can be stored on remote servers rather than on local computers. In the company’s marketing emails, it claims to have a better system that’s easier to use than its competitors.

And there are many of those marketing emails. Before Fox got involved, Verkada had a different sales approach in New Jersey, according to tens of thousands of emails IPVM obtained by making dozens of records requests and subsequently shared with Motherboard in their entirety. That sales approach was spam.

Take the small district of Glen Ridge, for example, which produced 353 pages of email records in response to IPVM’s request, all of it Verkada spam. The only exception is a brief exchange by two staff regarding one of Verkada’s favorite spamming techniques, sending a Google Calendar invitation to a meeting or webinar in which they offer school officials free Amazon or UberEats gift cards or a Yeti mug for attending. 

“Is this legit?” Jon Heitmann, a member of the Glen Ridge Board of Education asked. “No, delete,” replied Winnie Boswell, the Glen Ridge’s IT director.

The Cherry Hill school district likewise produced 502 pages of responsive records, all of which were unsolicited Verkada spam with the exception of a few out of office replies. 

Verkada sales reps also aggressively pushed free trials on districts, offering to mail them cameras for free which they can return if they’re not satisfied. Public records indicate that Verkada sales reps offered to let the districts keep the cameras. In one case, it offered to buy an entire IT team lunch so they could stop by to personally give another sales pitch.

In a report last year, IPVM found approximately 10,000 spam emails in responsive public records requests from 23 school districts in eight states over just three months, seemingly resulting only in desperate pleas from school administrators to make it stop such as “Stop. I receive so much advertisement from you it is ridiculous. Stop.” and “REMOVE ME FROM YOUR EMAILS.”

If anyone actually took those sales calls, they would have learned that Verkada operates on a subscription model rather than allowing school districts to purchase its cameras or vape sensors outright. Some districts don’t mind this approach, but others find it to be expensive. In an October 2021 Google Group thread for the New Jersey Association of School Technology Officials, an IT director from one district said he signed up for the free trial but “the salesperson is very pushy because you are signing up for a bulky price and it is going on all the time. I think this way, If I have a camera system and it is working, I will use it.” He estimated that, with about 300 cameras under his purview, it would cost his district $25,000 a year to use Verkada but one-fifth as much to use another company from which he could purchase them outright.

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The Demarest School District subscribed to Verkada’s platform in 2021. According to an August 12, 2021 email, Fox was immediately impressed. “They are incredible cameras and since we have some $ we are phasing out our old ones,” he wrote a colleague. He shared the email address of the Verkada salesperson he worked with, but did not copy her or anyone else on the email.

It’s not clear exactly when or why Fox’s relationship with Verkada changed, but in 2022, Verkada hired new sales representatives in the area. Fox started emailing with Bonham and Mason Koransky, a Verkada account executive. Fox’s first email blast regarding Verkada occurred in early April, under the subject “Verkada dinner” thanking them for “a great dinner” with “lots of laughs.” 

“I hope you enjoyed the food and drinks!” Bonham followed up to one of those emails, before asking for some calendar time to “jump on a Zoom call and show you the platform.”

This new approach, facilitated by a superintendent and local county employee, appeared to result in solid sales leads. “Yes good times!” one superintendent replied. “I need a quote for 6 vapes and one for 10 vapes. Also please provide the product description. I need it asap.”

The following week, on April 11, according to an email, Fox received a gift card for an unknown amount from Verkada in exchange for presenting at a Verkada webinar on July 13, which would itself become the subject of an untold amount of spam email to other school districts in the country. According to the notes provided to Verkada staff in advance of the webinar, Fox had nothing but glowing remarks for the system. “It’s like an Apple Product,” he wrote in one bullet point. “Anyone can use it.”

On April 20, Fox sent two more emails to superintendents in Bergen County, this time with a slightly revised and refined message. He specified that his district used “esser funds”—Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER), established under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of March 2020—and “alyssa’s law money”—established in 2019 in memory of a New Jersey native who was killed in the Parkland shooting that mandates all public schools have silent panic alarms or a similar emergency alert mechanism—”and our budget” to buy Verkada cameras. (Verkada has published explainers on its website about ESSER funding and how to use it to buy Verkada products and services.) Later emails would drop references to Alyssa’s Law and provide sample language for ESSER Funds applications. 

On May 5, Verkada hosted a lunch at Roots Steakhouse in Ridgewood, NJ—the lunch menu for which features, among other things, a 20-ounce dry-aged cowboy steak for $56—for Fox, Dargan, two Verkada account executives, and two local superintendents. The following week, between May 9 and 11, one of those Verkada representatives, Mason Koransky, and Fox emailed no fewer than a dozen superintendents, business administrators, and other school officials in Bergen County. Typically, Koransky sent the first email and Fox quickly followed up with his own pitch, all virtual copy-paste jobs from one email to the next. Fox’s portion read as follows: 

“Last year we began to look to upgrade our security system and add sensors to all three of our buildings. After a trial period we were sold on their products and placed our order with Verkada using Monarch as our vendor. We received our supplies in 48 hours and were able to begin install. My IT director and Principals are elated with the new system. We mostly used esser funds to pay for the products and install. Finally, the quality of the products and professionalism was extremely high. I have been a superintendent for 12 years and I must say this was one of the best experiences I have had in working with a company. I know Emerson, Haworth, Harrington Park, Northern Valley and Northvale are also using Verkada products. We highly recommend Verkada and if anyone wants to view the system they are more than welcome to stop by Demarest.”

In one case, Koransky emailed a “Dr. Murphy” with the usual pitch, only to have Fox reply directly to Koransky, “check chart they are not interested.” 

About two weeks later, Fox sent an email to two school officials with Dargan and Bonham BCC’ed. “I am helping set up a dinner with a company that supplies security cameras, sensors and access controls. My neighbor is a consultant for a company Verkada. We have set up a few dinners and had a terrific time,” Fox wrote. He invited them to a dinner on June 2 at Capital Grille in Paramus at 7 p.m. “There is truly no sales pitch,” he said. “Just a meet and greet with some good food and laughs.” 

He then immediately launched into a sales pitch. “Demarest upgraded our security cameras with Verkada this year using esser funds. In addition, Emerson, Becton, East Rutherford, Palisades Park, Harrington Park, Garfield, Paramus, Elmwood Park, Northern Valley and many more. We have a great fun group attending June 2. Please let me know if you are available to attend. If you have any questions about Verkada let me know. My Principals and IT director are elated with the system Look forward to hearing from you.”

The documents only capture one superintendent’s reply. Initially, he declined because they just recently got all new cameras from a different company. Fox followed up, assuring him that they also do vape detector systems as well, but the superintendent once again declined due to a scheduling conflict. “We will catch you another time,” Fox wrote. “They do like 1 every two months, Great company. Do you mind if they email you with a trial?”

In addition to the June 2 dinner, Verkada hosted another dinner on May 31 at Savini, an upscale Italian restaurant in Allendale, NJ. The next day, Fox sent a follow-up email to the attendees ostensibly thanking the Verkada employees—”Having the opportunity to be out with various companies, I always appreciate your approach of just light talking.”—before launching into the usual sales pitch. 

After the Capital Grille dinner on June 2, Fox followed up with similar emails, as well as one to the private Gmail address of Ken Rota, superintendent of East Rutherford Public Schools, asking him about his “great contacts to help Wiley, Jacob and Jerry get in front of some of the superintendents maybe this summer for lunch or dinner. I am sure they will appreciate any assistance you can offer.” Bonham replied, “That would be amazing!” Rota did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment. 

A few days later, Fox was emailing with another superintendent with the usual spiel, with Dargan and Bonham BCC’ed, when the superintendent expressed interest in a tour and being introduced to Bonham. The Verkada salesperson took the cue and jumped into the thread looking to schedule a call. 

But, by replying to the whole thread, Bonham revealed that he had been BCC’ed the whole time. For anyone on the thread paying close attention, this could have raised some red flags about Fox’s behavior—something Fox himself noticed. He followed up with Bonham—Dargan was CC’ed—pointing out the error. He explained that Bonham was only blind copied on the emails “to let you know where I am in the convo” because “most sups [superintendents] do not want to deal with sales reps until they are ready.” Fox said he had begun “courting” this district “for you” with “the IT person” and that “the reason I know they want cameras was a survey that went out in the county. Now it looks like I ran to you to tell you Dumont needs cameras. I have been a sup in Bergen county for 12 years and have built a great reputation. Hence why I have been able to help companies and my peers. I cannot have that breached bc it means a lot to me that people trust me. Before you email anyone please email or text me so we can review it. Have a nice weekend.”

The outreach continued over the summer, with Fox emailing four more school districts with the usual pitch. But as the summer wore on, he started to reach deeper into the Rolodex. On July 20, he emailed someone to whom he had not spoken in 17 years. 

“I am not sure you remember me,” he wrote, “but I worked there from 2002-2005 as an AP at Hills and Central. At the time you were working with Marlene W and Susan T. For the past 17 years I have been in Demarest and last 13 as superintendent. I hope you and your family are doing well, along with the Parsippany peeps. The reason for me reaching out is I am helping a security company (Verkada) have an opportunity to meet with schools and offer a free trial of a security camera. My neighbor is a consultant to the company and the vendors to make sure every district gets the best deal and service. I copied him along with Mason Koransky and Jeff Hickey who work for Verkada.” 

He sent an almost identical, and almost identically enthusiastic, email to someone else in the same district on August 3. In neither case, according to the records reviewed by Motherboard, did anyone bother to respond.

This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.

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