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Big Brother 24/7

School Webcams may help reduce violence but also raise privacy issues

When students in Biloxi, Miss., started this school year, they encountered a digital army of Internet-linked cameras that would record every minute of every activity in every classroom. Furthermore, the cameras will run continuously all year, in the hope of deterring crime and misbehavior in the school community of 6,300 students.

Educators today face more threats to school safety than ever before, going beyond fighting, theft and vandalism to school shootings and the potential for terrorism. Administrators across the nation are therefore seeking new solutions to increase the safety of students and staff, such as installing metal detectors, assigning security specialists to monitor buildings, and placing surveillance cameras on school grounds. However, Biloxi is reportedly the first district to install Internet-linked cameras in every classroom.

"You don't ditch class, you don't smoke in the hallways, and you don't bring illegal things to school."

School superintendent Larry A. Drawdy says the CameraWATCH company, at a cost of $2 million, installed 800 ceiling-mounted Webcams. Grants, bonds and local casino revenues paid for the cameras. But unlike traditional closed-circuit systems, the Webcam views are accessible from any Internet-linked computer, though only administrators and school board members are granted passwords. And, since the recorded films are stored on computer hard drives instead of on videotapes, several days of footage from each location can easily be reviewed.

Biloxi officials feel that the classroom cameras are already responsible for improvements in student behaviors. For example, Laurie Pitre, principal of the North Bay Elementary School, says some discipline situations have even been resolved simply by asking, "Do you want us to look at the camera to see what happened?"

Growing Popularity

Many school districts have set up inexpensive Internet-linked cameras to allow Web surfers to visit selected school locations. However, the use of camera systems for school security is rapidly growing in popularity, and districts throughout the nation are experimenting with applications. Webcams patrol the hallways and parking lots at Mississippi's Canton High School, and are being installed in classrooms this fall. Cameras were also installed in the Atlanta Public Schools to decrease violence and vandalism, and to serve as a deterrent for anyone attempting to sell drugs. As a student described life under the unblinking eyes, "You don't ditch your class, you don't smoke in the hallways, and you don't bring illegal things to school."

Crossing Lines

However, not everyone is enthusiastic about camera surveillance in schools, even when access is protected by passwords. The American Civil Liberties Union maintains such cameras infringe on the privacy rights of teachers as well as students, and do more harm than good. Some parents object to having their children filmed without permission, question the psychological effects of treating students as suspects, and raise concerns about voyeurism. Critics also claim that the systems can lead to unfair complaints about individual teachers and their teaching styles.

Nevertheless, Biloxi technology coordinator Ray Hughes received so many requests for information from other districts, that he placed a special inquiry button on the district Web site and added pages with answers to the most common questions. Webcams are clearly here to stay, so districts need to establish policies that strike acceptable balances between protecting privacy and achieving appropriate levels of security. DA

Odvard Egil Dyrli is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.