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The looming challenge of the eye in the hall

Achieving both safety and privacy is a bit of a balancing act in our world

July 29, 2012
Messenger News

Sixteen security cameras coming to Storm Lake High School? It's a sign of the times. And it's hard to argue with the statistics - in one recent year, 86 percent of public schools had reported one or more serious crimes; more than 2 million serious crimes inside schools per year. And that doesn't include things like minor thefts, vandalisms, disturbances and dastardly swirlies.

The motivation for adding a security cam network in the high school may be in part the February arrest of teenagers on burglary charges, after it turned out that some teens were scaling the roof, dropping into the courtyard and entering the school at night, until a custodian cornered a couple of them trying to steal pop, and the jig was up.

School officials say having cameras would have helped in that investigation. Then again, not leaving the courtyard door unlocked might have helped to prevent the need for an investigation.

Cameras are a fact of life nowadays. If you go to the bank to cash a check, you're being watched. If you go to the convenience store to fill your gas tank, you're being watched. If you go to Walmart to pick up a loaf of bread, you are being watched from the moment you pull into the parking lot. In case you weren't aware of that enough - they put a giant monitor overhead in the lobby ... smile, you're on not-so-candid camera.

If you manage to be anywhere without a security camera trained on you, you're still being watched by satellite eyes-in-the-sky. Heck, you can patrol Google Earth or Bing type services and snoop in on folks in London, Berlin, or down the street.

Cities around the world are beginning to use satellite images to fine residents for overgrown brushy yards, junk cars or decks and pools built without proper permits. In Greece, they use satellites to track people who owe the government tax money. Oh well, Big Brother can already listen to your phone calls to see if you are a terrorist, why not peek at your undies on the clothesline while they are at it.

It's a tangled web, of course. All kinds of class action suits have been filed on invasion of privacy, allegations have been made that surveillance is used for racial profiling, the American Civil Liberties Union has protested at every step. The Consumer Watchdog group did a study that claims that the FBI alone spent $600,000 on Google Earth since 2007 - for what, no one but the FBI knows. Hope they get my good side.

The ACLU's Donna Lieberman claims "there are ways to enforce requirements "without this sort of engaging in Big Brother on high. Technically, it may be lawful, but in the gut it does not feel like a free society kind of operation.

"We live in an environment where we are told that if it's on camera, if you have a video record, that will make us safer," Lieberman said. "That may be appealing, but it is an unproven assertion. There's no evidence of that. Yet we see millions, if not billions, of post-9/11 money has gone to law enforcement for installing cameras in every conceivable nook and cranny."

The cam controversy came to a head in the Iowa Legislature this year, after two years of debate over banning cameras used to enforce traffic laws at busy or dangerous intersections and monitor speeds on streets and highways.

The bill was a victim of funnel week, but of all the camera issues, that one to me seems a no-brainer. It's a safety issue. I'd rather risk a speeding ticket some day than have someone blast through an intersection and hit my son on a skateboard or my daughter's truck. Besides, to cam or not to cam seem like a home rule issue for cities and counties to hash out, not for the state to hand down from on high.

Rep. Walt Rogers says it's a matter of freedom. "I still go back to our (Iowa) flag and our motto: Our liberties we prize, our rights we will maintain. ... It goes to our sense of fairness and liberty is why people don't like them (surveillance cameras)."

A 2007 study by Iowa State's Center for Transportation Research and Education concluded that the "expected average number of crashes per quarter for red-light-running-related crashes decreased by 40 percent after installation of cameras at intersections with camera-enforced approaches."

Good enough for me.

The question is: do we have such an immediate safety concern inside our schools to make all those cameras necessary, and, like street intersections, would the cameras in schools actually work as a deterrent to criminal behavior?

Or will it create an atmosphere of distrust? There are some schools across the country that have seen protests over camera installation. Most just accept it.

Security in local schools has changed in the past several years, with good reason. The measures have been basic so far and have raised no concerns - doors being shut from outside entry during class hours, visitors being required to check in at school offices, monitoring of parent pickup and so on.

I recall after 911 some talk of a metal detector, but we haven't gone that far. Locker searches and drug-sniffing dogs are controversial measures that date back to when I was in school. Never bring a corned beef sandwich on dog search say - I'm just sayin'.

During worries over bomb threats a year ago, backpacks were banned for a time - not to hassle students, but to protect them.

Several years ago, there was some concern over the plan to put a police officer in the schools, but it seems to have been a fairly seamless and positive change in practice.

Maybe cameras will be the same; maybe. It all depends on whether students and parents view them as a safety measure, or an intrusion on their civil rights.

There are questions to address - will cams be used only to investigate when there is a problem, or will police be able to monitor live footage? If there is a theft from a locker room and footage shows 60 kids coming out of that room, will all be detained and questioned?

Legally, I don't think there is any question that the district can put up cameras if it wants to - aside from restrooms and locker facilities - the school is a public place, not unlike a street intersection or a park. It would be hard to make a case that a camera intrudes on a person's privacy, when it's not in a private place.

Still, it is sad that the people of Storm Lake have to spend money that should go into classroom resources, on cameras for crime.

Cameras or no camera, know this... our school is a safe one by any standards. The vast, vast majority of its students are exceptional young people, not criminals.

If we only could buy a camera to show that.

Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune and a former staff writer at The Messenger.

 
 

 

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