Surveillance cameras: A teacher's aid or Big Brother in the corner?

The morning bell hadn't yet rung, and students were convening where they always did, in the crowded commons, when a student pulled out a rifle. It was early October, 1997, three months to the day since Roy Balentine had become principal at Pearl High in Pearl, Miss., and he heard the shots from his office. It was a year and a half before the shootings at Columbine.

"[The student] walked into the school with a rifle under his coat and ultimately shot and killed two students and injured seven others," Mr. Balentine recalls. "I hate to use the term 'chaos,' but it was so unexpected that it ... turned the community upside down."

Four years after the shooting, Balentine switched careers to become director of educational sales at CameraWatch Corporation, a technology company in Jackson, Miss., that installs surveillance cameras in schools.

"I started to realize that, while there's nothing available on the market that is a foolproof means of preventing this, there are some tools to help administrators better monitor their campuses," the former principal says.

For more than a decade, in fact, some principals have been able to keep an eye on students from the neon glow of their computers, relying on cameras to monitor behavior.

And aside from the occasional hue and cry from privacy advocates, the cameras made their debut in schools with few dissenters.

It may not be surprising, then, that over the past two years, as school shootings continue to occur, administrators have begun installing cameras, long familiar in hallways, in classrooms. Their hope is that constant surveillance will deter such violence.

"I do think cameras could dissuade a lot of chronic bullies," says John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead lyricist and cofounder of Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in San Francisco. "Cameras themselves are probably no more invasive than any one of a host of other forms of surveillance that have become routine in public schools, which these days resemble prisons, both in appearance and intent, more than they do the groves of academe."

The topic has been generating debate for several years now. Shortly after the Columbine shootings, technology reporter Chris Oakes bemoaned the use of cameras in classrooms. Surveillance, he told Wired News, does little more than create an atmosphere of suspicion.

"How would it make you feel if you were being watched all day?" he asked. "That turns students into suspects automatically."

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