Surveillance Cameras Gain Ground in Schools

Columbine and Sandy Hook have turned school safety on its head.  We know about the use of surveillance cameras in subways, airports, in shopping malls, banks, gas stations but and other public places for decades, but now, they are becoming a standard fixture in school hallways.  Since the Sandy Hook massacre, state legislatures have introduced more than 400 bills to upgrade school security including school surveillance cameras.

Once installed in schools, though, surveillance cameras are used not only for security from outside invaders, but also for monitoring inside threats and student behavior. Cameras also mean that surveillance footage can be easily shared with police. The footage from these newer cameras is stored centrally on a school’s information-technology platform. Because the county or state, in the case of public schools, owns this platform, police departments also have access to this platform – which might be a drawback in terms of student security.

While progress in the way cameras operate and their abilities to monitor the halls where children spend a large portion of their days seems to create a sense of increasing safety for some communities, there are limits to the security they can actually provide in a crisis, some experts noted.

It seems that the use of cameras have been accepted throughout the public, both socially and politically, and that cameras are an acceptable way to monitor students.

Hidden Costs?

There are social costs associated with school surveillance cameras. The first results from submitting students to a constant state of surveillance. Many would argue that this is a substantial invasion of students’ privacy rights, especially because states have mandatory attendance requirements, so students are essentially required to be subjected to constant monitoring. While questions about the effects of policies incorporating surveillance cameras might arise, their continued presence in schools has legal footing.

Mr. Stephens, of the National School Safety Center, explained that the basic expectation of schools is that they provide reasonable care in establishing safety policies. It is up to local school boards to decide what their security practices will be in meeting that standard. These standards can be different depending on the kinds of risks and threats schools face. School safety is a function of place, threat, and circumstance. 

A potential legal tripwire for use of surveillance cameras comes from the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Cameras may be placed in schools so long as they aren’t placed in areas where students and staff would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as locker rooms or bathrooms. In one case where cameras were found to be illegal, the devices were embedded in school-issued laptops that were used out of school.

Despite such concerns, security cameras may now be in schools to stay. These measures, offer little protection against a determined killer with powerful guns.