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Keep Big Brother out of our schools

March 7, 2013

U.S. Senator Rand Paul took to the floor of the U.S. Senate yesterday for an old-fashioned filibuster about an issue every American citizen should be concerned about.

For almost 13 hours, from 11:47 a.m. yesterday until shortly after midnight this morning, Paul expressed concern about U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s written opinion that the president could have the authority to order a drone strike of any American citizen, even on American soil, purely based on a mere suspicion of terrorist activity.

“No American should ever be killed in their house without warrant and some kind of aggressive behavior by them,” Paul said.

Even though Paul’s valiant effort to promote public awareness of the issue is likely all for naught, because Americans have shown that they are unwilling to do anything about the way that their freedoms and liberties are under attack right now, Paul delivered an inspirational speech for all young Americans who are growing up in an increasing Orwellian society. Unmanned drones, police cameras at street corners, and warrantless wiretapping are all contributing to a scary new surveillance state, and the problem is getting worse as Americans cede more and more of their liberties to the government.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see a group of local students looking to do something about that.

Several Walpole High School students have formed a group called “Students Opposing Surveillance” to fight a plan to install surveillance cameras in the hallways of the high school and in each of the town’s four elementary schools. They are circulating petitions around the student body that they plan to present to the Walpole School Committee soon.

The School Committee says the proposal, which is estimated to cost between $37,000 and $73,000, came about in response to the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. in December. The cameras would conceivably enable law enforcement to pinpoint the location of a shooter in the event of a crisis. The cameras could also be used to identify perpetrators of certain smaller crimes around the school, such as vandalism, theft, or bullying.

The cameras pose some serious civil liberties concerns, not to mention cost concerns. Also troubling is that school administrators never felt the need to involve the students in the decision-making process for the cameras from the start, and one School Committee member in particular treated the student activists rudely and unprofessionally at last week’s School Committee meeting.

From a budgeting standpoint, the Walpole School Committee has been caught with their hands in the cookie jar, less than a year after the passage of a mammoth $3 million override.

Whether the cost is as low as $37,000, which Superintendent Lincoln Lynch has pegged it at, or is as high as $73,000, which the cost was originally proposed at, the school district simply can not afford major spending so soon after they demanded more revenue.

Lynch told The Walpole Patch last week that the significant cost is justified even after the override, because, as a one-time capital budget expenditure, it won’t take any money out of teaching staff, and the override was intended to restore and supplement teachers lost due to previous funding cuts.

“The override addresses recurring revenues,” Lynch said. “The override was intended to restore lost positions that are recurring. Capital requests … are non-recurring,” he said.

As if that makes any difference.

For the record, last year’s override actually did include some one-time funding, to the tune of $600,000, for new textbooks and other instructional materials. But no matter which part of the budget the security camera money comes from, the question is purely an academic one. It’s all taxpayer dollars.

Capital budget dollars are also routinely used to fund major education investments, such as new textbooks, and school computers – all of which are far more important to students than security cameras would be. Capital budget money also helps fund road repairs and drainage improvements in some neighborhoods. It is absolutely reasonable to assume that if the school district spends money on security cameras, it will come at the expense of other much-needed uses. Since the district’s justification for the cameras seems to be based on invading students’ privacies for a false sense of security, the cameras certainly are not an appropriate use of our money.

The School Committee should not dismiss concerns that the security cameras are an unnecessary expense, so soon after the district asked for more of our money.

School officials are also showing a stunning lack of openness in the decision-making process of installing the cameras. Not a single school official, not even Walpole High principal Stephen Imbusch, ever reached out to the student body to find out what they thought about the idea of being watched by administration as they walk around the halls of their public school.

“In retrospect, I should have met with the students and faculty before even requesting this, but there was a sense of urgency,” Lynch told the Patch last week.

Urgency? Urgency to install security cameras? It is always dangerous to rush on issues that involve our liberties. In the weeks after September 11, 2001, Congress rushed to pass the PATRIOT Act that weakened restrictions on law enforcement to listen to our phone conversations and to search our records, such as our library and financial documents, without a warrant. The law was passed all in the name of safety and security, in a supposed sense of “urgency” after a terrible terrorist attack.

Yet there is little evidence that the PATRIOT Act has kept us safe in the last decade. Passed with great “urgency,” it probably could have waited, to ensure it balanced civil liberties concerns with the concerns of intelligence officials. If government officials want to monitor our phone calls, they should have to get a warrant, just as the Founding Fathers intended for them to do in the Fifth Amendment. There is nothing wrong with old-fashioned police work – putting together a case, and getting a warrant to investigate a suspect further. If we are a country that follows our founding principles, we should treat all suspects with that same rule of law and due process.

There is absolutely no “urgent” reason to install security cameras in our schools. None whatsoever. There is no proof cameras even prevent or lessen the impact of school shootings, such as the one that occurred in Newtown last year. Also, mass shootings, particularly at schools, remain remarkably rare, despite oft-repeated myths to the contrary.

During the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, security cameras inside the school captured videos of both killers as they went on their deadly rampage. The cameras did not deter the act, nor did it make it any easier for law enforcement to end it once it began. All it did, if anything, was to create chilling YouTube videos for all to see.

School officials’ claim that the cameras would help prevent and solve vandalism and bullying cases inside the school also sends us down a dangerously slippery slope. Could security cameras also be used to catch students using their cellphones, cheating during exams, chewing gum, and performing other student handbook violations? In theory, yes. And once the cameras are installed, there’s absolutely no limit to what school administrators decide to do with them.

If security cameras in school hallways help deter rule infractions, could the Walpole Board of Selectmen then decide to propose putting security cameras at every street corner to prevent public graffiti and other crimes? It might sound ludicrous, but it’s not inconceivable – inch by inch, we have been giving up our liberties, always told by our elected officials that it is for our own “safety” and “security.” During the 1960s, Walpole did in fact curtail liberties for a short time, imposing a curfew on young people in order to curb an increase in vandalism.

Once citizens give up even a tiny part of their liberty, government keeps pushing and pushing until we live in a total surveillance state. It’s important to stop this trend dead in its tracks.

Government surveillance, at its core, is rooted in mistrust of citizens and it is about power and control. The more the government knows about what citizens are doing, the less power the citizens have against their government.

Whether the cameras are in school or out of school makes no difference – students are citizens, too, and have the right to go about their lives without being concerned that their every move is being monitored, as if they are criminals.

Students sitting inside a public school classroom before class starts talking about their mutual dislike for a particular teacher, or complaining about the principal, might feel threatened, for obvious reasons, by the presence of security cameras watching them. The students would have legitimate reason to feel that their non-threatening conversation, with no mention of or intent to cause any violence, would lead to a call from the principal’s office later on. Even though school administrators claim they don’t plan to actively monitor the cameras in real-time, the students have absolutely no authority over when they are being watched, once the cameras are installed.

Even students peacefully circulating petitions opposing security cameras, well within their Constitutional rights in a public school, might feel threatened when they are being watched. The cameras create an uncomfortable environment for students and staff alike. It dampens freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Lynch claims that the cameras are “intended to help students feel more comfortable in school.” Living in a constant state of surveillance certainly should not make anyone feel more comfortable. Security cameras foster a culture of fear, suspicion, mistrust, and secrecy. Students should not have to attend school in what amounts to a police state, thinking carefully about their every action and word to ensure they aren’t called down to the principal’s office for saying something that might sound off-beat.

Adding to the disrespect school officials showed to students in not including them in the decision-making process, School Committee Chairwoman Nancy Gallivan treated students from the SOS group very unprofessionally last week when they respectfully came to the Committee to share some of their concerns.

Gallivan offered no apology whatsoever to the students for the fact that administrators never solicited student input on the plan. Instead, she condescendingly acted as if the students were a burden on the Committee.

“I applaud you for coming to us because it’s important to feel like these are your schools and in the case of those of you that are seniors trying to do things for kids younger than you are,” she said. “So there’s no offense taken.”

Offense taken? Why would there be offense taken? Not one of the students ever thought or stated during the meeting that they were being offensive. Gallivan’s implication was that the students should have apologized for being offensive. It’s the other way around – it took a few politically-astute students, along with an aware teacher, to actually learn about the security cameras proposal in the first place. They never received any notification whatsoever from the Committee that any plan was in the works.

Gallivan also condescendingly attempted to instruct the students in how to collect signatures on their petitions, as if they asked for any help in the first place.

“If you want to leave your petition here you’re welcome to do that,” Gallivan said. “If you are hoping to gather more signatures, I would just say those kinds of things can go on forever, so within the week let’s put an end to collecting signatures, but if you want to turn it in tonight that’s fine too,” she said.

It’s not Gallivan’s place to be telling students when they can’t collect signatures. It is well within the students’ right to collect signatures as long as they want, and it’s none of her business how long it takes.

These students should be permitted to continue collecting signatures for more than a month, right up to the start of Spring Town Meeting in May, when the proposal will be brought up during the Capital Budget discussion. The nasty and condescending way that Gallivan told the students that “those kinds of things can go on forever” suggests that Gallivan does not value student engagement. A week is certainly not enough time to collect signatures of the entire student body.

Fortunately, other School Committee members were far more respectful to the students, and Lynch promised to meet with the students. Following through with that commitment, school administrators held a student question-and-answer session earlier this week.

The scary part is that because of a supposed sense of “urgency,” the student forum would never have happened, had it not been for a group of students who learned about the proposal practically by accident.

It’s also unfortunate that school administrators are ruling out teacher evaluation as a potential use for the cameras if they are eventually installed. If students are going to be watched as they do their work, teachers should have to work in that environment too. Of course, the teachers’ union would have a problem with that, and likely quash the idea immediately. Students don’t have a union to represent their voice, but they deserve just as much liberty to work without the prying eyes of administrators, as teachers do.

All citizens deserve the right to live, work, and play without being watched by Big Brother.

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