CHILDREN going back to school this fall on yellow buses in Prince George's County, Maryland, will be getting a quick lesson in surveillance.
For disciplinary and "safety" reasons, the county school system has decided to install black boxes to house surveillance cameras on half of their 1,000 school buses. Children who look at the blinking red lights on each box will not be able to tell whether cameras are on or off.
"We would certainly use the tapes for disciplining; it gives an objective source of information to cut down on incidents, [like] throwing things out the window, getting out of seats, any kind of misbehavior on buses," says Bonnie Jenkinds, a spokeswoman for Prince George's County school system.
"We have had some problems in the past...," she says. "This is an urban-suburban school district right outside of Washington and it really runs the gamut."
School-bus surveillance - which is also occurring in at least two other states, Florida and Texas - raises some questions about violating students' civil rights.
"I think it does kind of smell of Big Brother, but I don't know that it is Big Brother," says Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Maryland. "It's difficult to argue you have the expectation of privacy in a place like a school bus when hundreds of people can see you through the windows.
"It's troubling," he adds. "I don't know if it's illegal, but it's troubling, conditioning the youth of America that there might always be an anonymous person watching them. There is something disturbing about it. We should tread ... lightly."
Mr. Comstock-Gay says his biggest concern is "what happens if there's no crime, do they keep those tapes?" He argues that, unless a crime is committed, the school district should erase tapes of school bus trips.
Surveillance cameras have been used for the past year in Florida's Orange County school system, which includes the city of Orlando, and in the Leander, Texas, school system.
Diane Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Orange County schools, says the program started last year with 13 boxes and two cameras rotated on buses serving four of the most troubled middle schools. The purpose of the surveillance, she says, is "to improve the behavior on buses."
The boxes are effective, Ms. Taylor says, because students don't realize that many of the boxes, even those with flashing red lights, do not actually contain video cameras.
"Discipline referrals were down 99 percent," says Taylor. "When they took the boxes off the buses, discipline referrals went back up."
The result is that this year Orange County has expanded its surveillance of children. The school district bought 32 more boxes with cameras, intending to position them in all middle school buses.
The Leander, Texas, school district bought 37 boxes last year and five this year, says Ken Cogdell, the director of transportation. Six cameras are used for surveillance.
"We had a lot of school bus discipline problems, transporting 3,400 students," Mr. Cogdell says. "They did 3,000 student misconducts last year, from throwing trash on the floor [of buses] to screaming to weapons on the buses."
Cogdell says he was apprehensive about reactions from parents, but he received only one call from a father who was concerned about invasion of privacy. Cogdell told him there was nothing private about a school bus.
"We track discipline problems in the computer, and the first 15 days [of camera use] there was a 70 percent reduction in the misconduct report," he says.
But once the students became used to the system, misconduct went back up. By the end of the year, there was only a 30 percent reduction in misbehavior on buses.