Burtman | Bob Burtman | Indy Week

Columns » Bob Burtman


Big brother


Over the summer, the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham installed a high-tech security system to restrict access to school buildings and dormitories. Similar to those employed at residential schools across the country, the system uses electronic key cards that holders swipe through readers, which then register the user and open the doors.

In an increasingly paranoid age, the security system seemed a relatively minor and quite reasonable step to insure the safety of the Science and Math community from outsiders. It also limited access internally: Students' key cards, for example, worked only on their own dorms and their own floors.

Of course, being Science and Math students, they're adept at figuring out ways to circumvent the system. In Hunt Hall, some students vandalized the coders separating the east and west halves of the dorm so they could visit their buddies after hours. That prompted the administration to install hidden surveillance cameras in smoke detectors to catch the culprits. But the students found the cameras and raised a stink--especially since just a couple of weeks earlier the school's executive director, Gerald Boarman, had held a meeting with the seniors asking how to improve the level of trust on campus.

School spokesman Craig Rowe says the cameras were simply a "preventative measure" to see how and when the equipment was being vandalized and will eventually be removed. "They are temporary," Rowe says. "That's all I can tell you."

Surveillance cameras aside, the primary purpose of the new security measures was to limit the ability of non-students to penetrate the campus. "Why not be more safe?" Rowe asks rhetorically. "I think that's a big theme in our society right now."

The key cards are but one barrier outsiders face. Visitors to the Science and Math campus, according to school policy, must check in with the administration, obtain a guest badge and be escorted at all times by staff or students. ""No visitors will have electronic access to campus buildings," the policy states.

That, presumably, would include a ban on handing out pass keys to college students that let them into dorms--and even individual rooms--after dark.

So, it was with some confusion that parents posted a flurry of messages to a school Internet forum in mid-October. "Does anybody know anything about a group of college students having keycard access to the students' halls?" began the first note. Identifying the group as belonging to the Christian youth organization Young Life, the writer noted that even parents had to check in and get escorted like any other visitor. "I am not bringing this up simply on principle," the parent continued. "There apparently have been a couple of students that have not been able to get work done because of Young Life members constantly on their hall.... Does anyone from the administration care to respond and/or change the policy?"

Some parents reacted skeptically. "I find it extremely difficult to believe that the school would allow this," one wrote, suggesting that the administration could correct the misunderstanding. "Surely this is not correct information," stated another. "I find it hard to believe that a group of students, of any affiliation, who do not currently attend NCSSM would be given access to the school."

Others, while defending Young Life, stated unequivocally that no outside groups should have access to student living quarters: "My daughter also enjoys Young Life, however, it concerns me that they are given master keys to the school. Why were they given this privilege? Why are they of less concern than the parents?.... Also, Young Life does go on to halls frequently and I have heard that they have entered locked rooms, not to be malicious, but it does make some of the girls feel uncomfortable."

The confusion evidently extended to the adult faculty and staff who live in the dorms, known as Student Life Instructors. According to the parent forum, one SLI confirmed that Young Life had access to academic buildings but not residence halls.

One parent who participated in the forum says she tried to contact school officials about the problem, but never received an answer. "I called Boarman, I e-mailed Boarman," says the parent, who asked not to be identified. "I even called security. They said they didn't know anything about it, and I'd have to ask Dr. Boarman."

Eventually someone from the administration did post an "update" to the parents' Internet forum. "Initially when the young Life group requested universal access to residence halls in order to meet with students, it was granted," wrote Harry Tucker, who as head of campus resources is responsible for security matters. "All electronic access has since been discontinued."

Tucker did not explain why Young Life had been given universal access to the school in the first place, in clear violation of school policy. Boarman was not available for comment, and spokesman Craig Rowe declined to elaborate. "The school has communicated its view on these issues," Rowe says.

Rowe did explain the campus role of Young Life, which has had a presence on campus for years. Members of the organization volunteer as assistant coaches on sports teams and help with other campus activities, including tutoring and general mentoring. "They're a good group," he says. "It's no different than any sort of boys club or girls club coming on campus to help out."

Asked to name other groups that perform similar functions, however, Rowe professed ignorance (a legitimate excuse since he's only been on the job a few weeks). He did fax a list of official student organizations that included chapters of several national non-profits, Habitat for Humanity and Amnesty International among them. Beyond occasional meetings, however, non-students from those groups have no apparent presence at the school. And sources say only Young Life and one other group -- Imago Dei, also a Christian youth organization -- received key cards. (Rowe would not confirm that Imago Dei had cards.)

Moreover, according to a student active with Young Life, the school doesn't actually have an official Young Life chapter this year, though it has in the past.

As a religious organization, Young Life has to walk a fine line so as not to violate the constitutional prohibitions against the commingling of church and state. Rowe says the organization understands the boundaries. "They were specifically instructed not to use their access as a means to disseminate information" or recruit students for a religious purpose, he says, though just how the administration can keeps tabs on what Young Lifers disseminate is unclear.

Regardless, Rowe says, Young Life isn't considered a religious group the same way others are. If groups the school deems religious wants access to the students, he says, "They'll ask for permission to put a flyer up or contact a Student Life Instructor. If there is any interest by the students, the students will contact them. If there isn't, the [group] is [out of luck]."

Young Life staff member Buffy Smith confirms that the organization, which can be found in nine schools in Durham and Chapel Hill, does not actively proselytize. The local chapter's 70-plus volunteers "provide positive role models for high-school students," Smith says. "Our goal is to be involved in people's lives. The focus is really on relationships."

That vague, secular message contrasts sharply with the organization's explicitly religious reason for existence as expressed on its website. A national organization based in Colorado Springs with 2,800 paid staff and more than 22,000 volunteers, Young Life states flatly that its mission is "Introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith."

Smith says that volunteers do not raise the subject of religion unless asked by the students. But the subject does come up. "We do want to share our faith with them in a very non-threatening environment," she says, offering a generic example: "Here's what the Bible says, you decide for yourself."

School administrators elsewhere in the Triangle agree that this all seems rather fuzzy. To avoid controversy, individual schools have responded to groups such as Young Life by articulating policies that try to minimize confusion. These range from an outright ban to specific limits, such as participation with official student clubs or restrictions on when and where contact can occur. But if the School of Science and Math has a written policy, Rowe couldn't find it.

Ultimately, says Rowe, the administration realized that having Young Life students roaming about the campus at night and letting themselves in residence halls might have opened the door to other groups that wanted similar access. But the question of who gets to participate in the fabric of the Science and Math community remains unanswered. While most sources had positive impressions of Young Life, one can imagine the public firestorm if a cadre of Anti-Defamation League or Black Muslim youth were routinely tutoring students, taking them out to lunch, coaching their teams or just making friends.

Rowe says that after the key-card privileges were rescinded, Young Life hasn't come around much. But students say that's nonsense. "They're really active," says a student and Young Life member. "They're always at the school." EndBlock

Send your untold Durham scandals to: Burtman@indyweek.com

Add a comment