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A High School Where the Sensorship Is Pervasive

Security: Students are tracked all over campus. Many shrug it off, but privacy advocates don't.

September 08, 2002|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 and class schedule.

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 electronic security on 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.

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