Public Schools, Private Cameras

Cameras are everywhere.

Surveillance cameras were recently installed in my school. All of the hallways, floors and elevators are under watch. The feed pipes back to the security desk via a closed circuit. The DOE also has software that allows administrators to view the cameras from their computers.

The DOE has purchased the cameras from a contractor who apparently has little interest in equipping schools with the best technology. Bloom/Cott have apparently forked over millions of dollars for a system that is already obsolete. This is business as usual in the DOE.

It seems that watching the cameras is becoming a pastime at my school. It is not uncommon for me to come in the morning to see a group of adults huddling around the closed circuit feed at the security desk. It is quite the spectacle to see them with their mouths agape at the goings-on of a NYC high school.

While I am sure people can find a million reasons to install cameras at any school, there are probably many more reasons not to install them and even fewer reasons for watching them like hawks.

Yes, we live in a surveillance state and it was just a matter of time before schools got sacrificed to the one-eyed Moloch. They might help in apprehending vandals, cutters, fighters and gamblers. They might make students think twice before doing something destructive. They might make it easier for administrators to watch over the safety of the school. They might serve a million useful purposes.

That does not make them good purposes. When I was in school, the hallway was a place of relative freedom. We could talk, yell, slap fives and chat up girls without fear that our every move was being watched by anyone other than us. The hallways provided a brief 3-minute respite between those classes that required us to subdue the better and worse angels of our nature.

Then there were those moments when we got into mischief. We might cut a class, bang on a door, make faces into a classroom or a million other childish things. While as a teacher I certainly do not encourage any of these behaviors, as a graduate of the NYC public schools I recognize the hallway’s function as a stage for minor acts of rebellion. We felt free in the hallways because it was unlikely we would be seen by anyone by whom we did not want to be seen. It was a way for us to blow off steam as teenagers by partaking in mostly harmless fun.

Cameras take away from the semi-privacy of that forum. While students will be students in the hallways with or without cameras, the fact is that the camera makes student antics into a potential spectacle for private consumption. We can never know whose eyes are watching the feed, whether out of genuine concern for safety or out of sheer curiosity. The ultimate goal of the camera is to get people to believe that anyone can be looking through the other end at any time. This causes people to install their own internal cameras in order to police themselves. It is the most efficient form of discipline.

The other danger of the hallway camera is the slippery slope it starts. Now that cameras are in the hallways, it is just a matter of time before they are in the teacher’s lounge, the admin office and the classroom. The next shocking scandal involving a depraved teacher will raise calls for the necessity of classroom cameras. The entire education process will be a spectacle. With the advent of more stringent teacher evaluations that require principals to make hundreds of observations a year, it is easy to imagine them sitting at the comfort of their desks, flipping through classrooms like cable stations. “Let’s see what Ms. Miller is doing today” and “Does Mr. Johnson have his aim on the board?”

We are all stars in this day and age. Every one of us is destined for our 15 minutes. If we never become Hollywood actors or reality television stars, we will all be stars on classroom camera.

Schools are public spaces and public institutions. The corporate model is already chartering away our school buildings and producing a crop of principals who fancy themselves CEOs. Now cameras are promising to erode the freedom of action that makes school buildings vibrant and alive.

Public space is being molested in the name of private spectacle.

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One response to “Public Schools, Private Cameras

  1. I just lost a grievance about a camera viewing “an incidental view of a small portion of a classroom”. UFT does not think there is a problem here, nor does DOE. No ideas about rules of who has access! A terrible precedent yet again

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