Our Schools Are Graveyards for Freedom
By John W. Whitehead
“The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”—Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis
My granddaughter is seven months old. Intent on discovering as much as she can about the world around her, she is blissfully unaware of the fact that she is under constant surveillance. Between her doting parents, her equally doting grandparents and a baby monitor that is always turned on and tuned in, there is little this child can do that goes undetected.
When dealing with a precocious infant, such constant watchfulness is undeniably a good thing. However, I can’t help but wonder at what point and at what age such surveillance, especially outside the home, stops being beneficial and starts teaching young people that they have no right to privacy. When does concerned supervision become subtle indoctrination geared toward meek acceptance of a totalitarian society?
Modern technology now makes it possible for roaming digital eyes to watch every move students make. Using surveillance cameras, young people are under observation from the moment they step foot on a bus until they arrive home. In fact, schools both small and large are beginning to litter their hallways, classrooms and even buses with surveillance cameras.
For instance, schools in Demarest, N.J., have installed surveillance cameras with live feeds to police headquarters. Patrolling officers can access the feeds from headquarters and several laptops. And while the cameras are not equipped to pick up audio, the video capabilities are “impressive.” According to a local CBS reporter, “each of the laptops can pick up 16 different angles at one time, turning a single operator into a mobile surveillance team.”
Viewmont High School in Utah recently installed 36 cameras to provide school officials a bird’s eye view of every square inch of the school’s hallways and common areas. The cameras allow school officials to watch students as they go between classes, pass love notes in the hallways and gather in the school’s parking lot. “I can just simply scan through the school in less than a minute,” boasts the school’s principal.
Capitalizing on “a high-tech ground-breaking surveillance method,” schools in Little Rock, Ark., have installed 700 cameras in buildings throughout the school district. Like the Demarest camera system, these are linked in real-time to the local police department. The technology, valued at around half a million dollars, “allows us as police officers to be able to review a large portion of the building,” stated a Little Rock police officer.
Considering the rash of school shootings over the past decade, it’s understandable that school officials and parents would want to tighten security. Yet as schools across the country follow this heightened surveillance trend in lockstep, it remains unclear whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
The majority of schools today have adopted an all-or-nothing lockdown mindset that leaves little room for freedom, individuality or due process. Metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs and pat-down searches have become commonplace, while draconian zero tolerance policies characterize as criminal behavior the most innocuous things, such as students in possession of Alka-Seltzer or a drawing of a soldier.
A handful of schools have even gone so far as to require students to drape Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags around their necks, which allow school officials to track every single step students take. So small that they are barely detectable to the human eye, RFID tags produce a radio signal by which the wearer’s precise movements can be constantly monitored.
The prevailing thought seems to be that adopting such stringent measures will prevent students from committing crimes. However, security cameras certainly didn’t prevent Asa H. Coon from wreaking havoc in his Cleveland school. The troubled teen opened fire, shooting two students and two teachers before killing himself earlier this year—and that was with 26 security cameras placed throughout the school and an armed security guard on duty.
Furthermore, these measures dramatically interrupt the learning process, leave young people with a sense of unfair and disproportionate punishment, increase anxiety and promote feelings of distrust between students and administrators. They also habituate young people to state authority figures having access to their sensitive information and conducting arbitrary searches, with little regard for their right to privacy. As one reporter noted, surveillance systems serve to “normalize electronic surveillance at an early age, conditioning young people to accept privacy violations while creating a market for companies that develop and sell surveillance systems.”
This observation is in keeping with a U.S. Department of Justice report indicating that the percentage of students across the country who noticed surveillance cameras in their schools increased from 39% in 2001 to 58% in 2005. As the percentage increases, so too does the acceptance of what was once considered an unthinkable intrusion. As a Utah news station reported, “Some students say they live in an era where cameras are always recording so the idea is not a big deal.” In other words, America’s schools are making a police state look normal.
We all want to keep our kids safe and cut down on drugs, violence and other at-risk behaviors in the schools. However, our schools are fast becoming graveyards for freedom, and that should be cause for alarm. After all, whatever we teach our young people today about their freedoms—or lack thereof—will not only shape their understanding of the role that government plays in their lives, it will also determine the future of our republic.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at http://www.rutherford.org