Something new is happening in public schools across America. Round-the-clock cameras are coming into the classroom, and their introduction is stirring a wide range of emotions.
Reactions range from quiet acceptance by many parents to the shrillest outrage by those who insist the practice is a clear attack on the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches.
Cameras are appearing not only in classrooms, but also in school hallways, cafeterias, gymnasiums, auditoriums, parking lots and practically everywhere else on school grounds.
School districts throughout America and England are beginning to experiment with cameras hovering silently above students and teachers. But in Biloxi, Miss., of all places, school districts are out in front of the pack.
I abhor the idea of what some have labeled "spying" on schoolchildren. And I shudder when I think of the draconian measures other societies use to monitor childhood -- and adult -- behavior. But since many of us have transferred our parental responsibility to our schools, the burden of teachers and school officials has increased dramatically. The evidence is ample that we live in extraordinary times, times that call for sterner measures to help keep our schools and other public institutions safe.
But really, cameras in the classroom should not lead to paranoia. Nearly any public space where Americans gather is already under the camera eye. Americans are often quietly photographed at work, on the road, at public events, in shopping malls, banks, in court, and nearly everywhere else. Who are the photographers? Any of a number of private and government agencies.
So why not in school?
A Philadelphia school district spokesman, Cameron Kline, tells me that Philadelphia uses security cameras on the grounds of some schools but not in the classroom except, perhaps, for special projects or programs.
"We don't presently use cameras for monitoring students or teachers in our schools," Kline said. But if it's found that monitoring classes with cameras could benefit students, teachers and the administration, "we might consider their use," Kline said.
Up to now, Biloxi is the only school district in the nation that has installed Web cameras in nearly all its classrooms. When the new school term began on Monday, more than 500 cameras peeked down from ceilings all over campus. According to a district spokesman, "students, parents and teachers don't mind them at all."
Many privacy advocates do. They worry that cameras in schools could be misused and may even interfere with the learning process. But some argue that cameras can fill in where personnel is lacking: With the large school complexes of today, it is nearly impossible for teachers and security guards to cover every blind spot on campus.
Some are reluctant to concede that their acceptance of cameras was shaped by the Columbine High killings in 1999. But ever since then, school officials have engaged in a national conversation concerning ways to monitor their populations more closely. That conversation began immediately after 13 were slaughtered by students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were armed with a semiautomatic rifle, two sawed-off shotguns, a semiautomatic handgun, and dozens of homemade bombs.
No one should argue that cameras would have prevented Columbine -- but they may have helped somewhat. Had cameras been on campus back then, the students at Columbine who survived the killings would have had to plant fewer crosses to mark their funereal grief. As it happened, they planted four pink ones for the females, nine blue ones for the males -- and two black ones, a distance away, for the young killers.
So now, in our unending search for answers, some of us reluctantly move toward cameras. It is a move that stems at least in part, from that awful day in April 1999, a day that continues to haunt us, a day our nation lost a little more of its innocence.
Claude Lewis is a retired columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.