We like to think of our schools as havens of innocence, free spaces in which children can explore a world untouched by harsh reality. But across Europe these days, more and more of those explorations are being closely monitored. At the Portchester School in Bournemouth, a town with one of the lowest income levels in Britain, 986 boys in uniforms and ties pass nine closed-circuit lenses in the corridors as they move between classes. Three exterior cameras mounted on 5-m poles swivel above the school's parking lot and playing fields.
School facilities manager John Floyd watches the screens in his office, guarding against threats from without and within. Since the cameras were installed in 2001, school spending on replacement windows has dropped from $14,380 a year to virtually zero. The cameras snared a pupil hurling a brick through a window after being sent home from a school trip, and two would-be bike thieves wielding bolt cutters. "We don't like having the intrusion, but it works," Floyd says. Students initially objected, but now hardly notice the system. Asked to locate a corridor camera, a 13-year-old student fails to find it until another points upward. "I like it," he says. "It protects us."
Protection has been on parents' minds this school year. The hundreds of children who died after Chechen insurgents seized Beslan's School No. 1 set new and terrible records, but students have, of course, been caught in the crossfire before. A series of violent attacks in the past decade has forced school administrators to take preventive action against an array of threats from vandals and burglars to murderers and terrorists. "School-related terrorism incidents are extremely rare, but they do occur," says Michael Dorn, a school security expert with Jane's Information Group who is writing a book about terrorism in schools. Protestants left pipe bombs near a Catholic school in Belfast in 2001 and 2003. Last November, arsonists set fire to a new wing of an Orthodox Jewish school in Gagny, a suburb east of Paris. Sixteen children and their teacher were shot dead at a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996. Two teenagers cut down 12 fellow pupils and a coach at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. And an expelled student killed 16 people in a shooting rampage at a high school in Erfurt, Germany, in 2002.
So school officials everywhere know better than to assume that it can't happen to them. And they have sought ways to protect their students and staff members from both intruders and disgruntled insiders. Happily, these precautions have generally had to cope with little more than run-of-the-mill vandalism and they have helped reduce it.
England has embraced cctv in the classroom perhaps more than any other country. Its 21,000 schools now have thousands of the cameras, many of them purchased with $216 million in government funds made available after the Dunblane massacre. When John Floyd closes the Portchester School for the night or the weekend, he diverts the monitoring to a remote surveillance center some 95 km away in Chippenham. The center is run by a private company that supplies cctv equipment to about 40 schools in the region and monitors five of them after hours through a high-speed Internet connection at a cost of $2,700 to $5,400 a year each. If infrared detectors are triggered at any of the schools, the center is alerted; operators look for intruders on their display screens and call in the police, if necessary.