Stossel: What's Wrong With Cameras in the Classroom

Oct. 17, 2003 -- Today, security cameras are all over the place — gas stations, ATMs, mini-marts, sporting events, on streets, and on the streets. There's little doubt that the cameras make life safer. They not only deter crime, but when there is crime, cameras can reveal who did it.

Watch John Stossel's full report on 20/20 tonight at 10 p.m.

Schools use them in hallways and cafeterias, but the Biloxi, Miss., school district has drawn attention to itself by becoming the first to put them in every classroom, too.

One school principal says the cameras make the school safer. "Just the idea that I might be watching acts as a deterrent to a lot of the kids," Principal Pamela Manners said.

Discipline problems are down in Manners' school and in other schools in the district. There are fewer fights, fewer disruptions, and more learning, say officials. Cameras in the hall were helpful, they say, but covering the classroom is better.

What do the kids think? None of the students we talked to said they minded the cameras, and many liked them, saying things like, kids don't cheat anymore, and they sleep less in class.

Some say the cameras make school safer. "I feel a lot more safe knowing that I don't have to worry about is there going to be a fight break out right next to me? Am I going to get hit?" one student said.

Big Brother in Biloxi?

So, it sounds like the cameras are good for everybody. But some people want the cameras out.

"Just having the cameras there 24 hours a day is saying, we don't trust you," said Jill Farrell, who represents the Conservative Free Congress Foundation, a conservative group that's concerned about privacy.

But we don't trust them, I told Farrell, they're kids.

Farrell said, "Good kids don't all need to be treated like criminals."

But I don't think having a camera in a classroom is treating a kid like a criminal.

Farrell calls the use of the cameras "rather Orwellian."

Maryann Gracyzk, president of the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers, also opposes the classroom cameras. She's afraid they could be used to watch and evaluate teachers. She says, "The teacher ought to be in charge and in control" and that cameras are "taking away the authority of the teacher in that classroom to deal with any problems that they may have in that classroom in a professional way."

But what if a school administrator wanted to check in on the classroom and make sure teachers were doing their jobs?

Gracyzk said the superintendent can go into the classroom personally and get a firsthand look at how things are going. With the cameras, Gracyzk said, "Automatically you're setting up a distrustful situation. You automatically assume that your teachers are not doing what they're supposed to be doing."

‘No Technology Better Than a Human Being’

I argued that districts should be able to experiment with new technologies.

Farrell said, "There's no better technology than a human being. Human beings can set an example or make an example of a badly behaved student. Cameras can't do that."

That may be. But come on, the principals say the cameras make it even safer. So do the students. Don't they get to make those decisions?

If the unions and the privacy police get to veto every new idea, good ideas will never be tried. America has real privacy concerns to worry about — identity theft, tiny spy cameras that are used in the most private areas without people even knowing. Those are threats. Cameras in classroom may be a good thing.

Give me a break.