STUDENTS RETURNING TO HELENA HIGH SCHOOL this year might have been surprised to find themselves looking into the black, globular eyes of 55 brand-new, wide-angle surveillance cameras of the sort one sees in Safeway, Walmart, and other corporate monoliths. Students might also have been surprised when, at a September 26 assembly, they were introduced to their new pal, a cute yellow lab—the friendly, neighborhood drug-sniffing dog. Then again, they might not have been surprised. Some students, according to administrators, have for years been bemoaning the lax security at HHS; others have been watching the trends and anticipating the dark day with gritted teeth; still others are probably already so accustomed to the thought of being monitored anytime they leave their houses that the high school’s pivotal new security programs barely registered.
In any case, random drug dog searches and surveillance cameras, both of which have been introduced not just in Helena High but also in Capital High, Helena Middle School, and C.R. Anderson Middle School, mark a definitive step for the school district. And an expensive one. The total cost of installing cameras in all four schools came to $527,542. So far, the drug dogs, which are owned and handled by a national company called Interquest, have made only one visit in the District, at Helena High, and the District has paid Interquest $2,300.
Why now? And why so much all at once?
“Eleven years ago, I was begging to get cameras in our building,” said Steve Thennis, principal of Helena High. At the time, he said, Helena was the only AA school district in the state that did not use surveillance cameras. The thing that is different now, the thing that made both the drug dogs and the surveillance cameras possible, is the 2012 school board election of superintendent Kent Kultgen.
Thennis credited the cameras for the “night and day” difference between this year and last year. There is less theft and less vandalism, he said.
The cameras are strategically placed for full coverage—no doubt thanks to the more than $28,000 spent on “consulting services”—inside and outside, at all entrances, at hallway intersections, and at other vantage points. The footage, which as of now does not include audio, is stored for 30 days before automatically deleting.
“It puts an extra set of eyes on places where we can’t always put an adult,” said Thennis, which is strictly accurate since the system puts a “set of eyes” everywhere all the time. That “adult presence,” said Thennis, is the main prohibitor of “bad behavior.”
The types of “bad behavior” the cameras help protect against range from the serious to the petty. Thennis said the cameras had helped administrators sort out fights and protect students who were falsely accused of harassment by other students. He also said that they had been used to check students’ attendance.
At the beginning of the year, Thennis said, the cameras made his days busier as he dealt with an increased number of violations. Now, things have slowed down again because–and he recognized this as one of the most important achievements of the cameras–students are “subconsciously” aware of the cameras; they have internalized the notion of being watched.
“It sure makes things easier [for administrators],” said Thennis. Other AA principals whom he works with didn’t understand how Helena administrators could come even close to doing their job without cameras, said Thennis.
Now, with the cameras, investigations that would have taken a week are closed after 15-minutes of video watching; anonymous criminals are rapidly identified and punished; and “bad behavior” is swiftly corrected—all very clean, timely, efficient.
IT MAKES SENSE that such efficiency would appeal to Steve Thennis.
Thennis is a big man with thick arms, a muscular neck, and intense light blue eyes that don’t waver when he speaks. He wears his blonde hair in a well-maintained crew cut. He does everything with intent efficiency, as if his world moves a few clicks faster than ours does.
It is difficult to get an appointment with Steve Thennis because his days are booked solid almost every day. When, on a chance, he happened to have a few minutes free one afternoon and I happened to be near the school, I met him in his office for a short interview. He greeted me with a firm handshake so quick that my hand was left dangling in the air and he was already moving past me to close the door, take his seat.
Thennis was clearly proud of the drug dog program, though it’s not exactly new. Years ago, local cops used to walk drug-sniffing German shepherds through the schools, but the dogs posed some potential “safety issues,” Thennis said, and the schools had to go into lockdown every time they visited. The new dogs are friendlier, cuter, and, if you’re a student, more like to get you in trouble because of their hyper-sensitive noses.
The drug dog searches are supposed to be random, so the working of the dogs is shrouded in secrecy. Not even administrators are supposed to know when a search will happen. To fulfill the contract, Interquest must bring the dogs at least a specified number of times each year, but Thennis said the number is “not public information.” During the search at Helena High, the only one conducted this year, the dogs scanned lockers and the parking lot and returned an undisclosed number of “hits.” The dogs are trained to hit only on property—lockers, cars, unoccupied desks, etc.—and not human beings.
According to Thennis, the dogs are trained to sniff out and “alert” on a wide range of dangerous and illicit substances—from gunpowder to marijuana, alcohol to heroin. They are also trained to alert on things as trivial as an empty beer can, a bottle of Advil, or an energy drink. The dogs don’t differentiate.
I asked Thennis if, alongside the steps to institute new ways of catching and punishing students for wrongdoing, the administration had taken steps to inform students about their rights.
“It’s in the student handbook,” he responded. “The video surveillance policy… the canine policy… it’s all in there. Whether or not they agree or understand….” It wasn’t until later, after talking to students and teachers and reading the student handbook, that I understood why he had responded this way: the administration had done nothing to inform students about their rights because students in public schools have no rights to speak of.
“Reasonable Suspicion,” a legal term created for the benefit of public school administrators, allows Thennis and other principals to skirt the demanding requirement of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that no one be subjected to search or seizure without due process of law. It is different from “Probable Cause,” the fairly open-ended requirement for evidence that police must satisfy before conducting a legal search, in that it is less defined and requires even less evidence. In fact, it requires no evidence at all, only, well, suspicion.
The HHS Student Handbook says that Reasonable Suspicion means there are “reasonable factual (sic) grounds” for the search; it also lists as adequate criteria “Suspicious behavior by the student coupled with the student’s past history (sic) and school record.”
“Reasonable” is a relative term and, not surprisingly, it is defined to suit those in power. Thennis was surprisingly frank about this: “If somebody smells funny and has bloodshot eyes, that’s good enough reasonable suspicion for me.” In such a case, Thennis explained, he would proceed immediately to search the person, their backpack, their locker, their car. His mentality reminded me of that of the rogue investigator in cop TV shows—the brave officer who sidesteps the burdensome regulations to get the bad guys—except, in this case, there are few regulations to evade.
The drug dogs go one step further in that they search everyone in the school without even “Reasonable Suspicion.” A dog hit on a car or locker is, according to Thennis, “way above the threshold that we need” to conduct a hands-on search of the car, the locker, the student, etc. Teachers are subject to the dog searches too, Thennis explained. A hit on a teacher’s desk or car not only justifies but requires a search.
“[The teachers] are aware that if the dog hits on their desk, I have to search it,” said Thennis, “we worked it out through the union.” It is doubtful, though, that the administration went to much trouble to explain to teachers that, as of this year, they are no longer protected from nonconsensual searches, because all of the teachers I talked to were surprised to learn they had given up that right.
A dog’s alert is taken to be “factual grounds” that a crime has been committed, even though the dogs are trained to alert on legal items as well as illegal. Through backwards logic and some legal zig-zagging, incomprehensible to me, the Helena School District has created a drag net that undercuts the privacy of students and teachers alike. The principle is like that of the NSA: sweep up everybody and sort out the criminals later.
“If a dog hits on a vehicle,” explained Thennis, “I don’t know if they’re hitting on Advil, heroin, a loaded .357…”
“They’re unbelievably sensitive,” he continued. “They’ll hit on a beer cap, in the back of a truck, underneath a floor mat.”
“Don’t you get a lot of hits, then,” I asked, “in the parking lot?”
“Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm…. [Interquest] said that for the first few visits we’ll be really busy, but after that it’ll level out because kids will start cleaning their vehicles ‘cause it’s sort of a pain in the butt to get pulled out of class.”
“So you have hits for those small things? Do students not mind—?”
“I think they think it’s pretty cool.”
AS A FORMER STUDENT of Helena High, I was incredulous. As a former student on whose car the dogs would have “alerted,” unless their hair-trigger noses are really just a bluff, I was incredulous. I found it hard to believe that students didn’t mind being subjected to random, involuntary drug dog searches and administration/police searches that are, considering the range of the dogs noses, only slightly less random. I found it hard to believe that students didn’t mind being pulled out of class to watch strangers pick apart their cars in search of a Red Bull or, God forbid, a joint. So I asked some students.
I chose them randomly in that they happened to be in the same coffee shop I was at the same time I was there. They were Ellie Robinson, Alice Butler, and Kate Beaver, juniors at Helena High who fall thoroughly on the “good” side of the good-student-bad-student divide that is perpetuated in high schools by students and administrators alike. They are honors students, they are not activists on privacy issues, and none of them knew much about the NSA.
The three seemed to agree that they supported the surveillance cameras because they could protect against serious crimes like the alleged sexual assault that happened in Helena High last spring. At least, the cameras didn’t bother them much because, in Alice Butler’s words, “I’m not doing anything illegal so I don’t care.”
There was some disagreement, however. When I told the girls that the cameras were used to monitor attendance, Kate Beaver responded “that’s so controlling.” Butler disagreed: “people should be screwed for skipping class.” If people do something wrong, they should be punished, she said, because she does her best to obey the rules and is annoyed when other people get away with breaking them.
“But you’re old enough people shouldn’t have to babysit you,” replied Beaver.
For these three, the drug dogs are the bigger issue.
When I asked how the administration introduced the dogs, all three spoke at once.
“We had an assembly for the dogs…”
“It was so stupid…”
“…like it was this Big Wonderful Thing…”
“Everybody [at the assembly] was like ‘ooh such a cute dog,’” said Butler.
“Yeah, it’s like come on,” said Ellie Robinson. “It was to scare us,” she continued. “It was a scare tactic.”
“Yeah, but downplayed by like, ‘aww, such a cute dog,’” Butler added. ‘Throw out a toy for the doggie….’”
“I think a huge thing that bothers me is [the mindset] that we’re stupid high school students and the adults can do whatever they want to our stuff, search our stuff without permission,” said Butler. “But they have our safety in mind,” she ventured, doubtfully. “I guess.”
And then everybody laughed.
THERE ARE SOME who think the surveillance is neither justified nor effective.
Don Pogreba, who is in his 13th year as an English teacher at Helena High, said the camera surveillance system “perversely disincentivizes teachers from seeing bullying or whatever’s going on in the hallway.” Teacher’s jobs are easier, of course, if they don’t get involved and instead leave it to the cameras to settle.
“Being engaged,” said Pogreba, is a much more effective way of dealing with things like bullying, harassment and drugs. Using drugs as an example, he said “maybe the drug dogs will hit something, but it’s more effective in the long term to have teachers watching for changes in their students’ behaviors and intervening to help them. The surveillance model is punishment, not instruction.”
“On the positive side,” he continued, “I’m sure there’s a gain in efficiency. But honestly…I don’t know that there was enough negative behavior to necessitate this kind of intervention.” In his 13 years at HHS, Pogreba said he has had to break-up only a handful of fights. He said he doesn’t doubt that some students are using, even selling, drugs, but he doesn’t think the drug dogs will solve the problem.
“Let’s use the money for things we know are effective,” he said, “like counseling.”
Pogreba admitted that the surveillance could prevent serious safety threats like last year’s alleged sexual assault.
“Not to diminish that in any way,” he said, “but you can’t use one horrifying example as a rationale for spending this kind of money on surveillance. By that logic, we should have cameras everywhere.”
Don Pogreba opposes the surveillance not just in practical terms but in philosophical terms as well.
When I asked how he felt personally about being under surveillance, Pogreba said that he doesn’t have anything that he personally worries about.
“I don’t have any fear,” he said, “but I think when people say that ‘it’s okay because I’m not going to commit any crimes,’ that’s a really dangerous rationale for cameras and dogs.”
“I think the danger is that it sends the message that you can be surveilled anywhere,” he said. As an example, he compared Safeway to a public school. At Safeway, he said, you’re under surveillance but you have a choice to go there or not; but to get a free public education, students don’t have a choice whether they go to school or not.
“I don’t think [schools are] the place to send that message,” he said. “Especially in the era of all these revelations about NSA surveillance of Americans. We need to be talking about that, not endorsing it through our actions.”
“Schools teach in lots of ways,” Pogreba explained. “We teach the curriculum and we teach socialization and expectations. These cameras send the message that you don’t have privacy outside your home.” The dog searches, he said, “enforce the message that students are not equal rights holders in society.”
“It’s foolish to think that if for 18 years students are told that they don’t have the right to privacy, that they can be searched, that at the age of 19 they’re suddenly going to walk into society as people who are interested in defending their own rights.”