A bill introduced last week in the Mississippi Legislature would require public schools and postsecondary institutions to install video surveillance cameras all over their campuses. The bill would require that the cameras also record audio and that they be installed in classrooms, auditoriums, cafeterias, gyms, hallways, recreational areas, and along each facility's perimeter. Further, it would permit students' parents to view live feeds of classroom instruction, according to the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Stacey Hobgood-Wilkes (R–Picayune).
"We have so much critical race theory being taught in our schools and different issues," Wilkes said before introducing the bill. "It holds teachers accountable. It also helps them with discipline. Parents can't come in there and say, 'my child didn't do that.'" The bill lists "monitoring classroom instruction" as an authorized use of surveillance footage.
Wilkes did not respond to a request from Reason for further comment.
The bill would also authorize parents to request access to footage of an "incident" in which their child was involved. Schools must notify parents before classes begin each semester that cameras will be in use at their child's school. Campus signage will notify students, teachers, and visitors of where cameras are in use.
Although the bill provides that cameras "shall only be installed in areas where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy," the areas in which cameras would be statutorily required—specifically, the school cafeteria, recreational areas, and "interior corridors"—are precisely the types of places where students often carry on conversations they perceive to be relatively private.
Schools would be required to back up footage to a cloud-based system and scrub it after 90 days of storage, unless it becomes relevant to a qualifying school or legal investigation. However, school data troves are notoriously leaky and susceptible to hacking attacks. According to the K12 Security Information Exchange's 2022 annual report, there have been "a total of 1,331 publicly disclosed school cyber incidents affecting U.S. school districts (and other public educational organizations)" since 2016.
The bill does not raise any obvious constitutional questions, assuming, of course, that cameras in college classrooms are not used to abridge the academic freedom of professors or students. But its cultural implications are massive. Primary school is mandatory. Many schools are already staffed by "resource officers." Add numerous cameras or metal detectors, and schools might start to feel more like holding centers than places of learning.
"Surveillance does not equal safety; it undermines student trust in their learning environments, isn't effective at keeping them safe, and reinforces systemic injustice," wrote Mona Wang and Gennie Gebhart for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The pair argue that several school surveillance techniques—e.g., cameras, facial recognition software, and internet activity trackers—may, in fact, harm students.
But even if constant surveillance does not affect young students psychologically, a chilling effect on high school and college students is almost a certainty.
"Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust," Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in the 1957 case Sweezy v. New Hampshire. "Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."
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