Keeping a (Camera) Eye on Our Kids
I was not ambivalent about putting cameras on our school buses. Bus drivers cannot drive the bus and simultaneously supervise students on board, and there was no money to add bus monitors to the budget.
Before bus cameras, for the most part kids were well behaved and we had few real problems. But when problems did arise, it wasn’t always easy to tell who started it or what exactly happened. The driver had her eyes on the road, and it was difficult and unsafe to keep glancing in the rearview mirror to see what all the hubbub was about. In addition, drivers were at a disadvantage as disciplinarians because kids knew drivers could only yell at them from the driver’s seat instead of getting up and coming back. The seats themselves are high, of course, so the driver really can’t see what’s going on anyway.
So when a fight or an argument broke out, it was often the driver’s word against the student’s. Parents were often unwilling to accept the driver’s word, especially when disciplinary action included the student losing bus privileges for an extended period of time. Usually this decision was a penalty for the parent, who then had to find a way to transport the child to school.
But once we put cameras on buses, the arguments were over and the driver could drive. Even antagonistic parents had to back off when they saw their child, on tape, punching another student or pounding on another kid’s head with his notebook. For the most part, case closed.
So given the improvement in bus safety, why am I now ambivalent about surveillance cameras in schools? According to Alyssa Morones in Edweek’s “Spotlight,” schools have ramped up security measures since the shootings at Sandy Hook. Nearly 400 bills related to school security have been introduced by state legislators since last December, many of them focused on security upgrades, which can include surveillance cameras. Companies that provide cameras and other security measures for institutions report a substantial increase in demand for their products.
Proponents of surveillance cameras in school point to the advantages of being able to monitor children and adults at all times. Some think that the mere presence of cameras can deter untoward behavior.
Critics, however, point out that constant surveillance is insidious, and will make kids more acceptant of a Big Brother government. Rather than seeing cameras as an invasion of their privacy, kids may come to see surveillance as a way of life, a protection against bad things that could happen to them.
Perhaps I worry about the willingness to give up privacy for protection. I recall clearly how some people were eager to give up basic civil rights after 9/11 if it meant they could be safer. But we know from history that trading rights for safety turns out badly in the long run for a democratic society.
So maybe we have to think about the impact of this reaction to Sandy Hook. Maybe installing cameras is the right thing to do, maybe not. It’s the classic conundrum democracy faces.