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VARIOUS TEXTS: A High School Where the Sensorship Is Pervasive

By P.J. HUFFSTUTTER, Times Staff Writer

SANTEE, Calif. -- As Mike Brooder pulls into the student parking lot outside West Hills High School, wireless cameras record his face and license plate--doing the same to every car that follows.
The cameras then track the 17-year-old senior as he walks up a concrete path, studies his schedule, scratches his chin, waves to friends and then wanders to class.
Nearly every move Brooder makes--and every move of his 2,300 classmates--is captured and stored in the campus' database.
Following last September's terrorist attacks and years of school shootings, West Hills High sits on the cutting edge of the emerging surveillance society.
Each bathroom door is monitored. Sensors that detect the smoke of a single match send alerts to campus security.
By Christmas, four more cameras will be installed, and hall monitors will carry wireless computers that can pull up a student's school picture, class schedule and attendance record.
School officials are considering whether to expand the SkyWitness surveillance system by adding facial recognition software that will allow a computer to filter out who should--and who should not--be on campus. Technology, once viewed primarily as a learning tool, is building a wall of electronicsecurity campus. "People are saying they expected this to happen after the shootings and the terrorists last year," said Brooder, an honor student who plays on the school baseball team. "Still, it seems a little overwhelming and extreme." And perhaps likely to become far more common--not just in schools, but everywhere.
Schools are among the first to embrace new technology, often because companies view campuses as perfect testing grounds before rolling products out to corporate America. For instance, one of the companies behind West Hills' system, PacketVideo Corp., predicts that demand for products like SkyWitness will grow, as people are tracked at factories, office parks, stadiums--even places such as the Third Street Promenade shopping district in Santa Monica. Companies like the fact that students enjoy fewer constitutional protections than adults and have lower expectations of privacy than their parents. For many students, such surveillance is standard, with cameras at every bank ATM and many fast-food drive-throughs.
But the desire to protect has led to an erosion of individual privacy, civil liberties advocates argue. "Once privacy is gone, you can't get it back," said Dale Kelly Bankhead, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties. "This is not just about schools, but about a broader social attitude." Relying on such high-tech systems is an unusual move for high schools, but is expected to become a more popular trend in the post-Sept, 11 world, said Kenneth S. Trump, president and chief executive of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.
At Tewksbury Memorial High School, about an hour outside Boston, the push for security has gone so far as to result in a video-surveillance system that lets both educators--and local police--watch the hallways. "Cameras are everywhere someone wants to watch over," Trump said. The technology at West Hills relies on advanced hardware, but basic, off-the-shelf technology is already used by both parents and educators to watch kids. Software programs can take snapshots of every Web page they visit and every e-mail they send.
Devices such as AutoWatch can be popped into an automobile and programmed to record a car's speed, as well as times, dates and the lengths of time it is driven. Cell-phone bills list the calls a student makes and receives. "You might call it control," said Joe Schramm, head of security at West Hills. "We call it keeping the kids safe." Tucked into the scrub-brush valley of Santee, West Hills High appears to be nothing but safe.
The average SAT score is nearly 1100, and 70% of last year's seniors are attending either a community college or a four-year institution this fall. But West Hills High has not gone untouched by fear. Less than three miles away, Charles "Andy" Williams went on a shooting rampage last year, killing two students and wounding 13 others at Santana High School. The community was stunned when nearly two weeks later another student launched a shooting spree at a different school in the Grossmont Union High School District. Jason Hoffman, 18, wounded five people at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon. Hoffman committed suicide while awaiting trial. Last month Williams was sentenced to prison for 50 years to life. Despite the violence, the school district was forced to cut its budget across the board; the security group lost three of its 10 employees, including two of the staff members who helped patrol the 76-acre West Hills campus. Hoping to offset the pain of the staff cuts, the district started to look at technology it already had in place on its campuses and explore how the tools could be used for security purposes, said Sue Mangiapane, education global account manager for Cisco Systems Inc.
The San Jose computer giant had been hired to install the core routers, switches and servers that formed the computer brain to link campuses with the district's offices and, in turn, to the Internet. Initially, the technology had been designed for instructional use, such as creating digital lockers where students could store their electronic art projects. Then, the focus shifted toward security. At a technology conference this spring, executives from Cisco and San Diego-based PacketVideo began discussing the school shootings and tossing around ideas of how the tragedies could have been avoided. "Schools aren't a key security market for us," said James Carol, chairman and co-founder of PacketVideo, a privately owned software company that creates wireless video networks.
The company, along with Cisco and Sony, donated the equipment and handled the installation of the $50,000 SkyWitness system. "This was the right thing to do for a school that's essentially in our backyard," Carol said. The project at West Hills also provided the technology companies with a test lab in which to develop and try out a security system that the firms will ultimately market to corporate America and government agencies. Already, PacketVideo's software is used by cell phone and technology firms such as NTT DoCoMo in Japan and Siemens AG in Germany, and tapped for private security projects. Tech firms such as Microsoft Corp. and Apple Computer Co. have a long history of donating software and hardware to schools. The motivation is partly the push to be a corporate good citizen and partly the desire to influence the consumer habits of future shoppers. "If you want to stress-test a technology, particularly a security system, a school is a good place," said Trump of National School Safety and Security Services. "Most often, the biggest obstacle a company must overcome is the issue of cost. If [the technology] is free, many schools will be open to it." Aiding the decision is the fact that minors have fewer rights than adults, said John Pescatore, research director for security at the industry-consulting firm Gartner. "If the system gets too intrusive, the school and the technology companies are likely to get fewer complaints and fewer legal actions filed over it" than they would elsewhere, Pescatore said. "You can do things on a school campus that you could never do in an office building."
Few of the students at West Hills or their parents knew about the new surveillance system when classes began in late August. The school's football team, the Wolf Pack, and the campus cheerleaders had practiced on campus this summer and saw the cameras being installed. Rumors flew, as word of the new technology became campus gossip. Some students, carrying their bar-coded photo identification cards, grumbled about the digital devices that tracked their every step. But most wandered nonchalantly by the wireless cameras, ignoring the monitoring. "We're observed all the time," said senior Kimberly Schmidtke, 17. "It's just that they're now taping us." That such surveillance would not only be accepted but also embraced by some teenagers marks a subtle cultural shift over public monitoring.
A few decades ago, students rallied against having their actions recorded by authority figures. But as camera technologies became cheaper and easier to use, they became far more widely used, said Bankhead of the ACLU. Digital cameras sit on top of home computers, peek out of mall ceilings and take snapshots at gas station pumps. Cities such as Simi Valley have approved grants to pay for cameras to catch graffiti vandals, and dozens of towns nationwide use cameras to capture drivers who speed through red lights. "It's been so incremental, we almost didn't notice such monitoring of our lives was happening," Bankhead said. "We don't even know it's there. The more it's there, the more it seems to make sense to people."
In the first few days of school, only a few parents voiced complaints--not about the technology itself, but that the district had not informed them that the system would be put into use. "For something so significant, it's the district's responsibility to disclose what they're doing," said Patty Everts, 50, while waiting Monday to pick up her daughter at West Hills. "We knew there was new technology on the campus that was being upgraded. Most people assumed it was for educational purposes, not security." School officials plan to send a letter out to parents next month "as soon as we know the full potential of how we are going to use this technology," said Principal Jim Peabody. "The technology will help us keep kids safe and keep out people who shouldn't be on this campus." But the security system could not have prevented last year's school rampages, because the shooters were not people who didn't belong on campus. Reliance on such technology to attempt the creation of a protective wall horrifies privacy proponents, who insist that the West Hills system is not only invasive, but also gives parents and school officials a false sense of security. "No one's even asking the question: Is this truly going to make my child safer?" Bankhead said. To 66-year-old grandfather Jerry Parli, the answer is moot. Lingering at the entrance of West Hills, he sat patiently in the hot August afternoon, waiting to pick up his two granddaughters. "It's about time they do something like this," he said. "It's a terrible thing, but it's time to embrace Big Brother."

From Los Angeles Times, latimes.com of Sep. 8, 2002


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