Students who ride public school buses in Prince George's County will have an uninvited guest come October.
By then, half of the 1,000 yellow school buses in the county school system will be equipped with black boxes to house surveillance cameras.
School officials say those students won't have a clue as to which of the devices are actually videotaping their actions on the buses.
Three other Maryland counties -- Anne Arundel, Howard and Cecil -- have received approval from the state Motor Vehicle Administration and are looking at initiating 18-month pilot programs with cameras on their school buses, state education officials say.
The MVA approval is needed whenever additional construction is undertaken on school vehicles, said Richard Alexander, interim chief of pupil transportation for the state Department of Education. The black boxes will be fitted in the headers above the front windows of the buses for better videotaping angle and access by drivers, Mr. Alexander said.
Proponents of using the cameras claim the tapes will be used only for disciplinary and safety reasons. But Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, while acknowledging that such taping is not illegal, claims the practice does suggest an Orwellian influence.
"The budget will dictate how many cameras we actually purchase, but you can rest assured that we won't be getting 500 of them," Bonnie Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the Prince George's County school system, said yesterday.
She said tapes recorded during a disciplinary problem on a bus will serve as an "objective source of information to cut down on incidents, like throwing things out the window, getting out of seats, any kind of misbehavior." Ms. Jenkins stressed that school officials won't sit down each day and review the tapes.
Bus drivers, teachers, administrators and school principals will decide which buses get the cameras.
"We will utilize the tape only if there is an incident," she said, adding that tapes will run on buses carrying elementary, middle and high school students.
The state Department of Education feels "it's important to support local school systems when they are looking at innovative methods to insure safety," said spokesman Ronald Peiffer.
"We're not the first place where this system has been used, and it seems to have been effective," Mr. Peiffer said.
The videotaping of school students does "raise a question of invasion of privacy," he said.
"I think it does kind of smell of Big Brother, but I don't know that it is Big Brother," said the ACLU's Mr. Comstock-Gay,
"It's difficult to argue you have the expectation of privacy in a place like a school bus when hundreds of people can see you through the windows," he said.
Prince George's County, whose 113,300 students make its school system the largest in the state, is the only jurisdiction in Maryland employing such a tactic, Ms. Jenkins said.
Systems in Massachusetts, Florida and Texas have used bus cameras for several years.
Nevertheless, Mr. Comstock-Gay calls the practice "troubling, conditioning the youth of America that there might always be an anonymous person watching them."