On Wednesday night, the Harwood Union High School Board will take up the issue of whether students should be watched by video cameras as they attend school. This isn't just about after-hour break-ins at the school, which Harwood has recently experienced, though. It's about watching students as they go about the business of walking to class, heading for lunch in the cafeteria, or running outside for phys ed. It's surveillance, and it's the sort of thing that habituates us to the idea that we're becoming a surveillance society.
Harwood installed surveillance cameras earlier in the year. A policy has been drawn up governing their use, and Wednesday night there’ll be one of the official readings of that policy. The public is welcome to comment; the meeting starts at 6 p.m.
The majority of the board has supported the cameras’ installation. What are left now are details such as when exactly the cameras are turned on, who can watch the videos, and how long the digital video files are stored.
The draft policy wisely states that the main purpose of the cameras is to “protect school district property and assets from theft and vandalism.” The school’s assets are mainly at risk during after-school hours and on weekends. But some on the board want the cameras running not just during those vulnerable times but at ALL times, inside school and out. “Cameras shall record continuously,” the draft policy states.
Without specific justification for continuously filming students as they scurry to class, there’s no reason for this. And the message sent to young, impressionable adults when a school does this is that continuous surveillance of where you’re going and what you’re doing is fine – get used to it.
The tapes will only be viewed if there’s trouble?
That’s the justification the National Security Agency has been using to explain why its computers have been collecting personal phone, e-mail, and other communications data that document our activities. The information is being collected “just in case.”
Harwood is not just installing cameras. Administrators and school board members are making a pedagogical decision about the kind of world they want the children of their communities to grow up in. Students shouldn’t be made to feel they’re in a continuous police line-up.