King’s Academy is often seen as a bubble in an odd part of Jordan. The campus is a strong location for diversity, open-mindedness, and learning. Madaba, and more specifically Jbeir, is a community of generally traditional people, many of limited education. The school is an outsider in its community, and so it must ensure the protection of students and faculty. There exists a surveillance system in King’s, aspects uncovered to students, stages unkown and repeatadely questioned.
“I just wanna know if and when I’m being watched!”, said Hamzeh Shahin ’18, “I find it difficult to trust that we aren’t.”
Well, according to early visions of the school, you aren’t being watched. In fact, the topic of cameras was of high importance back in the stone days of King’s foundation, and former headmaster, Dr. Eric Widmer, made it very clear what he thought about the matter.
“The presence of security cameras would kill school spirit”, Dr. Widmer said to the New Yorker, in 2006, “we don’t want students under the impression that we are spying on them.”
During the end of the 2017 school year, a few incidents took place in Nihal that discouraged the school’s faith in its students. “Nihal was chaotic towards the end. Mostly seniors, with a few burn out Juniors, were just constantly messing around,” said current Nihal senior proctor Fadi Nuqul ’18. Although, it was all just tom foolery until a vulgar grafito appeared on a certain female dorm parents apartment door. Someone had written some sexually advanced grafito, that caused the faculty-member, and school, to take action.
After a meeting with Dr. John and all the boarding boys, King’s had learnt about the grafito, as well as an incident earlier in the year; when a student had broken into that same faculty’s apartment, along with some other members, after lights out. Apparently, the earlier incident triggered the installation of hidden cameras in smoke detectors, placed in front of the faculty apartments, for safety reasons. Those same cameras uncovered who the student that had written the grafito was. So, the mystery that was the King’s surveillance system began to unravel itself.
To understand the security system at King’s, I had to speak to Abdulrahman Al-Shawabkeh, the Security and Public Safety director, who worked with the late King Hussein for many years before coming to King’s. “Keeping the kids safe is my number one priority now,” Shawabkeh told me. We met on the grass lawn by the gallery, like two spies on a park bench. Our meeting was ambiguous, as if the information being shared was top secret. I found him talking to an administrator who had some worries about pick-up procedures, which allowed me to easily transition into the conversation of surveillance.
“Our borders are heavily monitored,” Mr. Shawabkeh told me, “with the latest technology.” Apart from the visible cameras on the walls, we have motion detectors between each camera port that will warn the people in the surveillance room whenever someone triggers it, and will cause the camera to pop-up so that the security can identify what triggered it.” nothing sounded unusual, except the phrase surveillance room.
“Oh, it’s just a room where all the operating cameras are visible on a large screen,” he said. “The software is only available to the computer in that room, and my personal one.” Shawabkeh said it was open to students, and invited me to email him to set up a visit. “I’ll make sure there is someone there to show you around.”
The following Monday, I visited the security head quarters. I met with Mr. Shawabkeh outside on the main road, and we headed towards a U-shaped building, which houses the mechanic, tailor, laundry, and, in the far corner, guarded by a saferoom door, the CCTV room. The safe door opens to a three meter hallway with another door at the end, this one wooden, with the label “CCTV,” with a room number that must not be disclosed. On the wall in front of me, two television screens displayed the view from every camera on campus, arranged in a grids, with four other monitors connected to the motion-detecting cameras.
There is a constant beeping sound emitting from every camera window that has been triggered by the motion detector, meaning that any movement in a shadow or tree-branch is causing the on-duty guard a headache. Below the screens are multiple desktop computers. In the inner corner of the room is an L-shaped desk: on the short side lies a land-line phone and P.A system console (one of three in the school), while on the longer side are two computer screens, one displaying the shifts and locations of all security guards and the other displaying blueprints of all the buildings on campus, with rooms and fire-alarm systems included. On the far end of the table there is a charging station for the moteralla walkie-talkies; which, according to Mr. Shawabkeh, are so well protected that they often connect to radio-systems in Ramallah, Palestine.
The system is set up so that there is always a guard on duty in the room, who is monitoring all screens. If they manages to remain sane after listening to the constant beeps, they will have jurisdiction to trigger any sirens when nessecary. After years of the same cameras, they have memorized the location of each camera, so as soon as they see something suspicious, they announce on the walkie-talkie that someone must go check, and the closest guards will respond. The security also has two SUVs, allowing them to head to any area of the school as quickly as possible.
As for cameras within campus; apart from cameras on the roads, just in case of car accidents, we don’t have any within campus. There are a few cameras on the dining hall, student union, and academic building, but they are all “outdated and inactive.” The only reason those cameras haven’t been removed seemed to ybe neglect. Eventually, I brought up the topic of hidden cameras, and some that had been used in the past, to which he explained that the decision is Dr. John’s, and he has no right to question it. In fact, he couldn’t remember ever hearing about it until I asked him. Towards the end of our conversation I asked him if he had anything to say to students that suspect the school has hidden cameras, to which he explained “We are all a family in King’s, this is our home and we live here together. You wouldn’t have a camera in your living room at home, because you trust your family.”he continued to state that as long as students aren’t doing anything wrong, they should be fine with any hidden cameras.
“If you aren’t doing anything wrong, it shouldn’t even be a worry!”, said a certain Senior, who requested to remain unnamed, “What are they gonna do with the videos anyway.”
One voice in the school that has been fairly vocal about her opinions regarding surveillance is Ms. Julianne Puente, Dean of Students. “I think I am in the most visible position in the school;” said Ms. Puente, as we both gestured towards the glass wall in her office, “and not just in terms of my office, in terms of always being the one that has to explain an issue.”. Ms. Puente explained to me her role as a leader at King’s, and how that often draws a lot of attention, and with it hate. Her positions on security have shifted over the years, “On one hand, I do feel you should have your privacy on campus, and that is something I really care about. Which is why there will never be cameras in the bathrooms or dorm rooms. But then I start to think about how many issues can be solved with the cameras.” She referred to the incident in Nihal last year as a case in which cameras were very useful. Calling a student to the OSL was much easier when they had evidence of the incident on her laptop, causing quick confessions. She told me about how easy her life would be if she just put cameras in the trees, by the red chairs, and in the common rooms. “If a fight happens; boom, just open the tape and figure out exactly what happened. And that is actually how some places work. Like London is just filled with cameras, you are being watched everywhere. That was a reaction to an event, and so was the one in Nihal.”.
Although, it is the hidden cameras she is against; strongly defending our right to know about the cameras. She said “I have said it a thousand times; I am not trying to catch you doing something bad, I am trying to stop it before it happens.”. Although, she did see some problems with the question, referring to non-planned surveillance as an undiscussed topic. She told me a story about an incident with Mr. Ryuji and a member of the cleaning staff. Apparently, after rising suspicioun about staff stealing money, Mr. Ryuji set up a camera to see if his worries were warranted. It turned out that there was a need to do so, and the staff was promptly relieved of his duties. This brought up the discussion of proxy-surveillance, essentially non-systematized filming from a third party in the incident. “What if a fight broke out, and a student started filming and gave me the video. I would definitely look at it. I have looked at videos like that.” Ms. Puente said.
She seemed to really care about this topic, and it had clearly crossed her mind multiple times. Although, it seemed as if she had been at a cross-roads at this moment, and wasn’t sure of her opinion.
Nonetheless, unrest amongst the student body remains, since the graffito incident, and a large portion of the schools believes they are being secretly surveilled. Often, students will refer to an unusual smoke detector or fire alarm as an example of hidden cameras, creating an aggressive atmosphere.
“Look, I don’t think the school is completely transparent with the students,” said Fadi Nuqul ’18, “Once they are, then I won’t question anything.”