Surveillance In Schools Essay

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School surveillance via a variety of search and patrol methods currently serves as the most common approach for dealing with student crime and violence. Headline-making instances of school violence in the 1990s led to a proliferation of surveillance. Whereas some believe it increases the perception of safety and decreases crime, others raise questions about privacy issues and the environment of suspicion that surveillance may create. This entry looks at methods of surveillance, the historical background, and arguments both for and against its use.

Implementing Surveillance

School surveillance methods include locker searches; metal detectors; security cameras; police patrols; and, more recently, biometric scanning and Internet tracking. Locker searches basically involve school officials (principals, teachers, disciplinarians, security personnel), randomly and without student permission, opening a student’s locker and investigating its contents. Metal detectors, in the form of handheld wands or walk-thru units, are used to find metal objects carried by students, particularly guns or knives. Security cameras and closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) are used to monitor the activities of school participants in places like hallways, parking lots, and stairwells. Police patrols, performed by security personnel, occur within the school environment, as well as in the surrounding community. Officers may be dressed in either plain clothes or uniform. The fairly new technology of biometrics involves fingerprinting and face recognition, with the former being used more prevalently. Internet tracking has become more common in schools and workplaces. School officials and company employers are using the latest software products (eBlaster and Spector Pro) to assist them in overseeing e-mail usage and Web site searches, as well as preventing sexual harassment and cyber bullying among students and adults.

School surveillance became a central focus in American society in the 1990s after shocking episodes of school violence were witnessed in places like Jonesboro, Arkansas; Jefferson County, Colorado; Paducah, Kentucky; and Pearl, Mississippi. In the wake of these highly publicized tragedies, the need for safer schools became a concern not only for educators and families, but also for politicians. Federal programs and legislation, such as the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, geared at minimizing school violence, broadly translated into zero-tolerance policies that found schools across the nation adopting surveillance tactics as the primary means for ensuring school safety. Although surveillance has been criticized as an invasion of privacy and an infringement upon students’ Fourth Amendment rights, some regard it as indispensable in maintaining a sense of safety for all school participants.

Roots of institutional surveillance can be traced as far back as the late eighteenth century. Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, conceived a model for a type of prison called the Panopticon. The building’s tall, circular structure situated prisoners in cells or compartments along its inner circumference, and the building’s inspector, or chief guard, was lodged in the center, having a view of all prisoners at all times. As Bentham was faced with numerous political and financial obstacles at the time, the Panopticon essentially remained a blueprint. However, its architectural influence can be seen in the basic organization of today’s prisons. The Panopticon’s hierarchical design has also served as a metaphor for ideas related to “discipline” and “social structure” within institutions like hospitals, military facilities, and schools. French philosopher Michel Foucault looks at this phenomenon extensively in his 1975 publication Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

Arguments Pro And Con

There is a range of advantages and disadvantages associated with the employment of school surveillance methods. Proponents of these measures include parents, students, school officials, legislators, lawyers, and security systems experts. These groups maintain that the key benefit of such tactics is that they provide school participants with a feeling of security. It is widely held that when students and educators are worried less about their safety, teaching and learning can proceed more effectively. It is also argued that the use and presence of school surveillance helps in deterring potential acts of crime and violence such as assault; robbery; vandalism; and drug possession, distribution, and use. The idea is that if students realize that they are being videotaped or at any time may be searched, then they will be less prone to commit an offense. Supporters of surveillance also contend that security systems help keep school participants safe from outside forces such as gangs, terrorists, and parental kidnapping.

Opponents of school surveillance are represented by the same groups as those in favor of it. One criticism that is often presented is its high price tag. The cost for testing and installing the technology (e.g., CCTV systems) can run $50,000 or more, with an added expense for upgrading. It is argued that these expenses would be better used for curriculum resources or school infrastructure.

Surveillance is also criticized as to whether or not it actually works. As students have found ways to bring weapons into schools, avoiding metal detectors and security cameras, the purpose of its use (and even its overuse) is often called into question. Another argument against school surveillance is largely focused on the use of security cameras. This technology has been thought to encourage profiling based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and so on. Certain students may be tracked by cameras as their appearance fits a particular profile.

Finally, the most noted argument against school surveillance is that it fosters a climate of paranoia and persecution rather than safety and protection. For example, when student lockers are searched, this is viewed not only as an invasion of privacy, but also as a loss of ownership. Many students consider their lockers to be a private place to store personal belongings. When school officials invade that space, a feeling of disconnection, as well as distrust, can arise within students, negatively affecting their morale.

The most controversial aspect of school surveillance, relative to legal and ethical concerns, revolves around the privacy that is compromised by its use. Although the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbids unreasonable searches and seizures, schools, like airports and courthouses, have been recognized as distinctive settings where officials have a wider range of powers in order to ensure a safe and orderly environment. Thus, schools possess the authority to decide how and when to execute a surveillance program. For instance, locker or student searches (via metal detectors) can be scheduled weekly or daily and based upon “reasonable suspicion” or hearsay. Courts have been less inclined to uphold cases of “unreasonable” search and seizure, as schools hold the unique power to define what is reasonable and can warrant a search at any time based upon the threat of violence.

The greatest concern among students, parents, and others is that surveillance tactics may extend so far beyond reasonable suspicion that they become an everyday routine. The imagery of Big Brother invading every facet of citizen life creates a feeling of both fear and dread. Although courts often side with schools, ethics do play a role in helping to balance the scales. Various legislation and civil rights policies mandate that the operation of surveillance measures be as minimally invasive as possible in order to guarantee students’ right to privacy. For example, video surveillance should neither record audio conversation nor be carried out in places where students and adults expect reasonable privacy, such as locker rooms and bathrooms. Likewise, in the case of Internet monitoring, students and adults must be informed that Web searching and e-mailing will be subject to filtering and supervision.


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  3. Greene, M. W. (2001). Learning about school violence: Lessons for educators, parents, students, and communities. New York: Peter Lang.
  4. Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Mehta, J., & Harding, D. (2004). Rampage: The social roots of school shootings. New York: Basic Books.
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  7. Williams, K. M. (2005). Socially constructed school violence: Lessons from the field. New York: Peter Lang.

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