Students in Biloxi, Miss., public schools started classes this week under the watchful eye of web cameras that will keep track of every classroom and hallway. School and security officials said they believed Biloxi might be the first school district in the nation to install cameras in every classroom.

Biloxi started installing the cameras two years ago, and now that the project is complete, there are more than 500 cameras in district schools, said Deputy Superintendent Robert Voles.

The cameras, which don’t record sound, are contained in circular domes on the ceiling, giving a sweeping view of the classroom. Administrators can view the images on the internet by entering a password.

Voles said the camera installation is a precaution, and that students and teachers have said they feel safer. The cameras were paid for with casino revenue received by the district, which has 6,500 students.

“They’ve been well received in the community,” he said. “We have not had any problems or complaints whatsoever.”

Roy Balentine of CameraWatch Corp., a Jackson, Miss., company that specializes in school security, said it is unique for a district to install them in every classroom. He said there are probably few, if any, other school districts that have done so.

The U.S. Department of Education and several national education and school safety groups said they don’t keep data on surveillance in schools.

The Biloxi school system has not yet written its policy on how the cameras will be used, Voles said, but the list of people who can view the tapes is limited.

Only a school principal, vice principal, superintendent, school board member, or board attorney can view the recordings, he said. A parent, student, or teacher would have to go through a court.

State Rep. Les Barnett Jr. says having cameras in the classrooms of North Bay Elementary School, where his two children are enrolled, gives him a sense of security.

“It’s a shame that we’ve come to a point that we have to do this in our schools,” he said. “I’m not a proponent of Big Brother looking in, but this does involve the safety of my kids.”

But Maryann Graczyk, president of the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers, said she worries about how the cameras would affect teacher rapport with students. She doubts the cameras will act as enough of a crime deterrent to justify the intrusion–or the $2 million it cost to install them.

“In observance of the democratic process, we’re willing to give up a lot of privacy … in the interest of safety,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do.”

She also said she is troubled by the inability of students, parents, or teachers to see the recordings without going to court.

“If my child in school is accused of something … I would certainly want to see that,” she said.

At least one school safety expert warned that security technology must be accompanied by a comprehensive safety plan.

“We have cameras in banks, and they still get robbed. Any security equipment in schools must be a supplement to, but not a substitute for, a comprehensive approach to school safety,” said Kenneth S. Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.

School leaders should train their staff members to prevent violence, have solid crime-prevention policies and procedures, and exercise their crisis plans, Trump advised. He also noted that most school violence occurs outside of the classroom, raising questions about the need and costs associated with putting cameras in each class.

Security equipment can create a false sense of security, especially if schools fail to integrate the use of equipment into a broader safety plan. Trump says school officials must be able to answer three questions when considering equipment use:

  • What threat are we trying to address by using this equipment?
  • Are we able to use it effectively on a day-to-day basis?
  • What is our plan (including funding) for repair and replacement?

In most of his school-security assessments nationwide, Trump said he finds existing equipment improperly used or not even used at all.

“Webcams in the classroom are certainly no panacea for preventing school violence, and budgetary constraints make the concept of classroom webcams as a trend for the near future highly unlikely,” he said.

Links:

Biloxi Public Schools
http://www.biloxischools.net

CameraWatch Corp.
http://www.camerawatch.net

Mississippi American Federation of Teachers
http://hometown.aol.com/mafthome/myhomepage/index.html

National School Safety and Security Services
http://www.schoolsecurity.org