Cameras Watching Students, Especially in Biloxi

New York Times

September 25, 2003

BILOXI, Miss. — A digital camera hangs over every classroom here, silently recording students' and teachers' every move. The surveillance system is at the leading edge of a trend to outfit public schools with the same cameras used in Wal-Marts to catch thieves.

Fearful of violence, particularly in light of the nation's experience with schoolhouse shootings, educators across the country are rushing to install ceiling-mounted cameras in hallways, libraries and cafeterias. But no other district has gone as far as this Gulf Coast community, which, flush with casino revenue, has hung the cameras not only in corridors and other common areas but also in all of its 500 classrooms.

That has made virtually everything that happens at any of Biloxi's 11 public schools subject to instant replay, though so far, principals report, they have used such replays to confront only humdrum problems like clarifying the disappearance of a child's ice cream money or ensuring that students do not sleep in class.

"It's like truth serum," said Dr. Laurie A. Pitre, principal of North Bay Elementary, who frequently peeks in on her classrooms from a computer monitor in her office. "When we have a he-said, she-said situation, 9 times out of 10 all we have to do is ask children if they want us to go back and look at the camera, and they fess up."

Dr. Pitre and other administrators said the classroom cameras, which Biloxi started phasing in two years ago, had helped improve discipline and, as a result, raise test scores, a view also voiced by some teachers, parents and students. But teachers' unions and civil libertarians have expressed dismay over Biloxi's surveillance system, calling it an Orwellian intrusion on the sanctity of the classroom.

"Putting cameras on children trains them to believe that being watched every minute of the day is O.K., that Big Brother is O.K.," said Steve Lilienthal, a director at the conservative Free Congress Foundation, based in Washington. "They should be teaching them to behave not because a camera is on them, but because it's the right thing to do."

Biloxi's school district is not the only one where surveillance cameras are provoking controversy. In January, cameras at a school in Livingston, Tenn., recorded 10- to 14-year-old boys and girls undressing in adjacent changing areas in preparation for basketball, and stored the images on a computer accessible through the Internet, according to a federal lawsuit filed by parents.

William L. Needham, the director of schools in Livingston, said in an interview that the camera system had been installed in a utility room that was later converted to a locker area, and that after the incident he removed it and delivered the images to law enforcement authorities. But the plaintiffs accuse school officials of "callous indifference" to the children's privacy.

In many towns, though, cameras are becoming a routine schoolhouse fixture, installed above drinking fountains and laboratory tables with little or no public notice. No laws appear to specifically regulate their use in schools, some of which, as in Canton, Miss., are financing their purchase with federal money.

When officials are drawing up plans for schools, "there's not a one that doesn't want cameras," said Todd Walker, chief financial officer of the CameraWatch Corporation, which has installed surveillance equipment in schools from North Carolina to California.

About 950 new public schools opened across America in 2002, and school architects estimate that three-quarters were equipped with surveillance cameras. In the last month alone, schools in or near San Diego; Syracuse; West Milford, N.J.; Rockbridge County, Va.; and Owings Mills, Md., have announced the installation of surveillance systems.

In New York City, Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said there were cameras in 150 of its schools. Dominic Recchia, a New York councilman who led a drive appropriating $1 million over two years to install cameras in the stairwells and hallways of Lafayette, Lincoln and John Dewey High Schools, said, "This is definitely the movement we're headed to."

School administrators are enthusiastic because digital technology makes the cameras far easier to use than the analog cameras that recorded images to videotape when educators first began experimenting with schoolhouse surveillance a decade ago. Today's digital cameras record to a computer hard drive, allowing school principals to conduct an instant replay of a cafeteria food fight at the click of a mouse.

Most districts install cameras only in hallways, other interior common areas and parking lots, said Greg Chase, technology director for SHW, a Dallas-based architectural firm that specializes in schools. Many districts deem cameras too invasive for classrooms, he said, and in any case the costs can be prohibitive.

But Biloxi is different: nine casinos pay a gambling tax that has helped finance a $70 million school construction program, including $2 million to install 800 cameras in four new schools and seven existing ones.

"Our whole purpose was to make our schools safer," Dr. Larry Drawdy, the superintendent of schools here, said in an interview.

Biloxi has never had acute difficulty with violent or unruly students, however, and it appears that the most serious problems resolved through use of the cameras concerned infractions by custodians.

In one case, Dr. Drawdy said, a camera recorded images of a night janitor stealing a school television set. He was arrested and charged.

The other case involved reports from teachers at North Bay Elementary last year that on some mornings, they arrived to find their classrooms in disarray, although the floors were clean. Reviewing nighttime images, Dr. Pitre discovered a custodian "sweeping" the floors with a garden leaf blower, leaving a tornado of papers in his wake.

Mostly, though, the cameras are solving problems that teachers previously handled on their own. The other day a little girl denied slapping a classmate on the arm, so Dr. Pitre went to a computer monitor and caught the girl in a lie.

Pamela Manners, principal at the Michel Seventh Grade School, says the cameras allow her to manage ticklish problems with more discretion. Last year a science teacher suspected a boy of cheating on a test. Ms. Manners did an instant replay and caught him red-handed. Armed with the images, she was able to confront him in private, avoiding a messy classroom scene.

At Biloxi High School, Twyla B. Moore, who teaches English and journalism, said she and many other teachers regarded the cameras "not as an invasion but as a protection."

"There's an acceptance," Ms. Moore said, "because we're all used to being watched by cameras anyway, whenever we go to the grocery store or to pump gas or visit an A.T.M."

Though no union has bargaining rights for Biloxi teachers, some of them belong to the American Federation of Teachers. Maryann L. Graczyk, who heads the union's Mississippi local, said that at a recent meeting, she heard Biloxi teachers express concerns about the cameras' effects on children and about how the cameras might be used in evaluating teachers' work.

Dr. Drawdy said the cameras were not used to evaluate teachers, and would not be.

Lauren Taylor, a fifth grader at North Bay Elementary, said she had grown used to the classroom cameras and would most likely forget about them entirely, except that a substitute teacher frequently gestures to them and reminds pupils that they are being watched. "Be good," Lauren quoted the substitute as saying, "or Dr. Pitre will see you."

Civil libertarians and many educators express outrage over Biloxi's surveillance experiment.

"I shuddered," said Paul Abramson, a school design consultant in Larchmont, N.Y. "Kids are kids. What are we telling them when we put them under surveillance?"

Lee Tien, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which monitors legal issues related to technology, called the Biloxi experiment "a Kafkaesque civil liberties nightmare."

Allison Buchanan, the PTA president at North Bay Elementary, called such criticism "silly."

"They're just inventing a problem that's not there," she said. "In my two years on the PTA, I've not heard one parent say anything bad about the cameras."