You lookin’ at me? Spy cams come to school

It already was a trend. Schools in increasing numbers have been installing closed circuit television (CCTV) systems on buses and playgrounds, in parking lots, libraries, and corridors, at entrances, and even in boys’ and girls’ locker rooms. But the two tragic shootings that left five students dead late last year in Pearl, Miss., and Paducah, Ky., have hastened schools’ acceptance of electronic surveillance, school security experts have told eSchool News in recent days.

In the aftermath of these terrible tragedies, many school systems are turning to technology to keep their children safe.

Electronic surveillance in schools is on the rise, said Peter Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools. Blauvelt attributed the increase to twin phenomena: growing concerns over school security and recent advances in technology that have made CCTV relatively affordable.

But are schools taking surveillance too far? Preschools in California, New York, and Connecticut are experimenting with digital cameras and software that let parents keep an eye on their children via the internet. The digital images of the toddlers are snapped periodically, then uploaded to the internet by the preschools, where they can be downloaded at will by anxious high-tech parents.

“It’s very Orwellian,” said David Banisar, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. “It sets a precedent for a generation of kids who could grow up thinking that surveillance is normal.”

Like internet content filtering and a host of other technology-driven concerns, electronic surveillance is a sticky issue where schools must balance a legitimate desire for security with a potential for unwarranted intrusion. And the debate on both sides is fervent.

Russell Tedesco, director of security for Prince George’s County schools in Maryland, is a firm believer in school surveillance. When Tedesco took over the position last year, each of the county’s 20 high schools had CCTV. Tedesco convinced the county to spend an additional $300,000 to upgrade the system, and he applied for a grant from the Bureau of Justice and Administration to install cameras in the schools’ parking lots.

“CCTV provides another set of eyes for the administration,” he explained. “Cameras can be where personnel can’t be all the time, simply because we lack the manpower.” Tedesco said the cameras actually helped solve a robbery at a county high school last year.

Not every school official shares Tedesco’s enthusiasm, however. “There’s a fine line we’re walking between keeping our schools safe and turning them into fortresses,” one official confided.

Chuck Hibbert, security coordinator for the Wayne Township Metro School District in Indiana, offered this word of caution: “One of the things we must guard against is letting national trends” drive local decisions. Hibbert said surveillance has become generally accepted among private-sector employers and, he added, this acceptance is spilling over into schools.

If you’re thinking about electronic surveillance, Hibbert cautioned, it’s imperative that your community support the idea.

In his own community, a rash of break-ins of student vehicles prompted the district to consider installing a CCTV system in the parking lots. But Hibbert said school officials are weighing the political impact: “They’re worried about the community’s reaction — what are parents going to think?”

Hibbert’s colleagues in the central office currently are surveying the community to determine its level of support.

Robert Pickett, superintendent for the Vicksburg-Warren School District in Mississippi, said his district also is mulling whether to install CCTV. Some of Vicksburg-Warren’s high schools are multi-level with several “blind spots” that could be eliminated by electronic monitoring. “We’ve discussed the possibility for a few years,” said Pickett, adding that the recent shootings in Pearl and Paducah have intensified debate.

Pickett emphasized that parents are very much involved in the discussion. “We realize that nothing is foolproof,” said Pickett, “but we want to take as many precautions as we can.”

School surveillance can raise several legal issues, according to Alan Matchett, a security consultant in Virginia. The Supreme Court, he said, has consistently held that there is no “reasonable expectation” of privacy in public places. This line of reasoning presumably would permit television surveillance in many school areas. But Matchett warned this rule does not apply to conversations, which are still considered private. He advised anyone considering surveillance to steer clear from audio recording.

Bathroom stalls and showers also are considered private, he said, but there are several places in schools — such as locker rooms and the sink area of bathrooms — that are less clearly defined. Placing cameras where they might identify special-needs children could also pose a problem, he noted. To avoid violating students’ rights, Matchett recommended that television surveillance be limited to hallways, classrooms, and entrances.

Another sticky issue: What becomes of the images caught on video tape? There are no clear laws to regulate the storage and use of surveillance tapes, security experts said. Digital technology now makes it possible to store such information almost indefinitely — a fact that has some school people worried about images that could get into the wrong hands.

“Control of the system and the tapes should be restricted,” warned Matchett. “[They] should only be accessible to the designated security director or to a senior staff member of the school.”

Electronic surveillance also can take a huge chunk of your technology budget. Blauvelt recommended you do some self-assessment to determine just what kind of problems you’re trying to solve before you invest in any equipment.

Hibbert agreed that surveillance is often unnecessary. He said there are other cautionary steps you should take first that may eliminate the need for surveillance. Make sure all areas are well-lit and doors have good locks. Keep time between classes to a minimum. And encourage teachers and building administrators to maintain a high profile.

Electronic Privacy Information Center

National Alliance for Safe Schools

National School Safety Center

American Society for Industrial Security

Dennis Pierce

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