By John W. Whitehead
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever.”–George Orwell
When my granddaughter was a baby, she was blissfully unaware of the fact that she was under constant surveillance. Between her doting parents, her equally doting grandparents and a baby monitor that was always turned on and tuned in, there was little she could do that went undetected. When dealing with a precocious infant, such constant watchfulness is undeniably a good thing. However, I can’t help but wonder at what point and at what age such surveillance, especially outside the home, stops being beneficial and starts teaching young people that they have no right to privacy. When does concerned supervision become subtle indoctrination geared toward meek acceptance of a totalitarian society?
Modern technology now makes it possible for roaming digital eyes to keep young people under observation from the moment they step foot on a bus until they arrive home. In fact, schools both small and large have littered their hallways, classrooms and even buses with surveillance cameras. Yet that’s not all.
The majority of schools today have adopted an all-or-nothing lockdown mindset that leaves little room for freedom, individuality or due process. Metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs and pat-down searches have become commonplace, while draconian zero tolerance policies characterize as criminal behavior the most innocuous things, such as students in possession of Alka-Seltzer or a drawing of a soldier. A handful of schools have even gone so far as to require students to drape Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags around their necks, which allow school officials to track every single step students take. So small that they are barely detectable to the human eye, RFID tags produce a radio signal by which the wearer’s precise movements can be constantly monitored.
As surveillance cameras, metal detectors, police patrols, zero tolerance policies, lock downs, drug sniffing dogs and strip searches become the norm in elementary, middle and high schools across the nation, America is on a fast track to raising up an Orwellian generation–one populated by compliant citizens accustomed to living in a police state and who march in lockstep to the dictates of the government. And with every school police raid and overzealous punishment that is carried out in the name of school safety, the lesson being imparted is that Americans–especially young people–have no rights at all against the state or the police.
Just consider what happened in April 2010 at a high school in Springfield, Missouri. On April 22, the school principal announced over the public address system that the school was going into “lockdown” mode. Students and teachers were ordered to leave all personal belongings behind and exit the classrooms, while police and drug-sniffing dogs rummaged through students’ backpacks, purses and other personal effects. Incredibly, when contacted by outraged parents, school officials insisted that this “standard drill” would continue.
Unfortunately, in the decade since the Columbine school shootings, it has become far too “standard” for school officials to violate students’ Fourth Amendment rights in the single-minded quest to make schools safer. The extreme punishments being meted out by school officials for minor infractions illustrate this phenomenon quite clearly. For example, a 12-year-old in Louisiana was arrested and jailed for two weeks and accused of making “terroristic threats” for telling his classmates he was “going to get [them]” if they ate all the potatoes in the lunch line. A 14-year-old in Florida was held in an adult jail for six weeks after being accused of stealing $2 from a classmate. A high school senior in Virginia was suspended for taking a swig of Listerine in violation of the school’s alcohol policy.
Childish playground games such as cops and robbers are now seen by school officials as anti-social behaviors that require harsh punishment. Nail clippers and ibuprofen are treated as contraband on the same level with weapons and hard drugs. Outgoing and imaginative students are often labeled as mentally ill and prescribed medication in order to sedate them into conformity (perhaps explaining why nearly 7 million school kids are on the cocaine-derivative drug Ritalin).
The list goes on and on. But as 6-year-old Zachary Christie remarked when he was suspended for bringing a tiny Cub Scout multi-tool that functions as a spoon, fork and knife to school, “It just seems unfair.” Indeed, do any of these extreme measures really succeed in making our schools safer? Many parents have been persuaded to sell their children’s rights for security measures that school officials insist will keep them safe at school. Yet all these measures have really succeeded in doing is to teach young people to be fearful of authority and accept their fate without question.
Moreover, the imposition of draconian zero tolerance penalties teaches our young people a very bad political science lesson: that government authorities have total power and can violate constitutional rights on a whim. Furthermore, these measures dramatically interrupt the learning process, leave young people with a sense of unfair and disproportionate punishment, increase anxiety and promote feelings of distrust between students and administrators. They also habituate young people to state authority figures having access to their sensitive information and conducting arbitrary searches, with little regard for their right to privacy. As one reporter noted, surveillance systems serve to “normalize electronic surveillance at an early age, conditioning young people to accept privacy violations while creating a market for companies that develop and sell surveillance systems.”
To those who are concerned with the erection of a police state in America, such policies should be causing alarm bells to go off. School administrators should stop acting like prison wardens in a totalitarian state and start acting like role models of a democratic society. As Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas observed in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District: “In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the state must respect… In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.”
Unfortunately, in our quest for conformity and control in the schools and beyond, we pay short shrift to our revolutionary birthright–the idea that an individual has the right to speak up and challenge injustice. Rather than instilling in our young people a fear of authority, we should be teaching them to be revolutionaries. Instead, we leave them to the mercy of school officials with no regard for their rights, and wonder why they fail to appreciate the relevance of the Constitution. We fail to impart to them a personal understanding of freedom and act shocked when they miss the significance of the Declaration of Independence or the Civil Rights movement. Forced to subjugate themselves to the rigid will of school officials and law enforcement, they will be ill equipped to deal with the pressures of an adult world overrun by authoritarian politicians and monopolistic corporations. And we will have only ourselves to blame.
If American schools really are the training ground for future generations, then freedom as we know it is doomed. Unless we put a stop to Orwellian education, this next generation will be the most conforming, unimaginative, and fearful generation ever to come of age in America.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is now available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org