Every move some East Valley students make — from the time they step on the school bus to when they enter the classroom — is being followed by a camera.
As many as 40 video cameras at some East Valley schools watch students in parking lots, hallways and cafeterias. Eight of 13 East Valley school districts have installed surveillance systems in recent years, and those with the technology say the result is less theft and vandalism — and students who think twice before pulling the fire alarm.
“They’ve helped us solve a number of problems, from fights to vandalism,” said Rich Dobson, an administrator in the Fountain Hills Unified School District, where cameras have operated since 2000.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other government watchdog groups, however, say the cameras invite “Big Brother,” the electronic guardian of the novel “1984,” onto campus and send a dangerous message to students.
“I think it’s appalling, and it’s a violation of privacy,” said Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the ACLU. The United States has now reached the point where a total “surveillance society” has become a realistic possibility, the ACLU warned in a Jan. 15 report.
Jill S. Farrell, director of communications for the Free Congress Foundation in Washington, D.C., said tracking students with surveillance cameras trains them to believe that being watched by the government is OK.
“Good kids should not be treated like criminals,” she said. “It has a warping effect.”
Unlike the high-profile case last month in Biloxi, Miss., where a school district installed webcams in every classroom, East Valley schools that use cameras have kept them in common areas such as parking lots, cafeterias, hallways and buses. No East Valley system uses audio.
Surveillance cameras are kept outdoors at Desert Mountain High and Supai Middle schools in Scottsdale, the only sites in the Scottsdale Unified School District with cameras.
“We have not used the cameras to monitor student behavior,” said Bill Johnson, chief of facilities and operations for the district.
But in the Chandler Unified, Fountain Hills Unified, Gilbert Unified, Paradise Valley Unified and Tempe Union High school districts, officials say they monitor students on a regular basis.
Hamilton High School staff in Chandler “can observe directly, especially during lunch if they want to,” district spokesman Terry Locke said.
Gilbert High School principal Charles Santa Cruz said the cameras, installed at his school about five years ago, give him “another set of eyes.” He said there will always be critics of technological advancements, but all one has to do is “look at our national climate” to understand why the cameras are welcome.
Since 2002, principals in the Tempe Union High School District have been able to toggle among 40 camera views from the desktop computers in their offices to watch students in all public areas.
“We have foiled many crimes,” Marcos de Niza High School principal Frank Mirizio said at a recent governing board meeting. “We have figured out who’s pulled the fire alarm when they’re not supposed to.”
The Paradise Valley district invested $480,000 to outfit its seven middle schools with surveillance cameras in 2001. The district’s five high schools already had cameras.
“We’ve caught some people that we wouldn’t have caught before,” said Paradise Valley assistant superintendent Skip Brown, who cited the example of a student caught trying to steal money from a vending machine.
Brown said he is unaware of any complaints from students or parents about the cameras.
Highland High School freshman Dennis Phrasavath, 14, said surveillance cameras at his school in Gilbert are “really evident” in the cafeteria, but the surveillance doesn’t bother him.
School districts in the East Valley that do not use surveillance cameras include the Mesa Unified School District, which tested cameras at Dobson High School in 1999 but decided they were not cost-effective.