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Ashkelon high schools keep students under camera watch

By Yuval Azoulay

March 09, 2005 - Cameras installed in Ashkelon high schools are helping their administrators deal with violence among the pupils and incidents of theft on school grounds.

The cameras were installed about two years ago in six large high schools, together with the municipality and the Defense Ministry's public council to prevent violence in Israel (Mazila).

Although the cameras were initially intended to prevent recurring theft after school hours, principals soon "discovered" they were useful in documenting pupils' activity.

Yafit Barzilai, principal of comprehensive Ironi Daled, can monitor almost everything that happens in the school on the split screen in her office. Although the 11 cameras do not give her total dominance, she finds them indispensable.

Yitzhak Abergil, principal of the town's Ort Adivi Technological High School also cannot manage without the 16 cameras constantly recording what happens in almost every corner of his school. He says the atmosphere in the school has improved since the cameras' installation, and damage to school property and violence among the pupils have dropped.

"Nothing is done secretly. The pupils know where every camera is, and that every move is photographed, so they are more careful. It's a fine system. If I had 30 cameras instead of 16, I'd be even happier," he says.

"I would never show the film to a pupil, but I would tell him I have evidence of some incident or another," says Abergil.

A few months ago a youth entered a school that was not his in Ashkelon. He found his girlfriend in the corridor, beat her and opened her school bag and threw her books and notebooks in every direction. Cameras installed in the school documented the incident. The school administration and teachers tried to persuade the girl to file a complaint with the police, but she refused. The principal had no choice but to hand the film over to the police, who found and arrested the violent boy.

"At the beginning of the week," Barzilai says, "I was sitting in my office at a management meeting, occasionally glancing at the screen. There was a lesson in the computer room, and I saw two pupils fiddling suspiciously with the computer. For 20 minutes they tried to sabotage it. Finally I used the loudspeaker system to call out the two pupils' names and asked the teacher to check on the computer."

Timora Shiri, principal of Ort Henry Ronson in town, is also pleased with the performance of the 12 cameras she has installed on the school's 40 dunams. Here the cameras cover "blind spots" in the yards as well. "Once the entire contents of a computers' classroom was stolen. The camera documented the whole thing, and the police caught the thieves," she says. On more than one occasion she used the film to see how brawls among students began and to find out who was involved.

Orly Polette, the coordinator of Mazila in Ashkelon, says that since the cameras were installed, both the number of violent incidents and vandalism have dwindled. "It doesn't mean these things don't happen any more. There are still cases, but fewer," she says.

Education Ministry sources say that legally placing cameras in open areas does not violate the pupils' and teachers' privacy.

Polette said that the pupils first objected to the cameras. "They said it made them feel they were in prison because their every movement was recorded. But with time the cameras were received as a fait accompli. They are placed only at possible friction points, like corridors, entrance gates or in classrooms where there is expensive equipment, but not in regular classrooms and locker rooms," she says.

Bar, a ninth grade pupil in the Ironi Daled high school, is less pleased. "They are invading my privacy, and I find it very disturbing. I don't like it when people get into my life and it restricts my movements in school," he says.

Eliran of the eighth grade, on the other hand, is not bothered. "I am not afraid of the cameras. There are enough pupils and teachers who will see me if I do anything wrong and report to the administration," he says.

The principal of Ironi Alef, Edna Wallenstein, objected to having cameras installed in her school. "It does not prevent violence," she says. She fears it might even lead pupils to devise "more creative, sophisticated offenses. The school is not a bank, and the pupils are not going to rob safes. It's a huge expense that I would gladly invest elsewhere," she says.



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