Audio Recording on School Buses Prompts Debate Over Security vs. Student Privacy

By Evie Blad — June 12, 2014 1 min read
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More Pennsylvania districts have installed audio recording devices on school buses since Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation in February allowing the practice for “disciplinary and security purposes,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

Video recording was already permitted on school buses. But, before legislators changed the state’s law, most districts did not record audio on buses becauser the state’s Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act prohibits taping conversations without a party’s consent. Those state laws are more commonly thought of in application to phone calls. Pennsylvania is one of 11 “all-party” states, which require consent from all parties involved in a recording, according to the Digital Media Law Project. Other states are “single-party” states, in which not every party must consent. (Child of the 90s here, reminding you that you may remember extensive public conversations of recording consent laws from the time that Linda Tripp secretly recorded her phone calls with Monica Lewinsky.)

So why record audio on school buses? According to the Post-Gazette:

A 'high volume of incidents' on buses prompted a need for increased security and monitoring, said Dan Castagna, West Mifflin Area superintendent, who hopes the recordings will be a 'deterrent.' 'You have lots of students crammed into a small space, so it seems like no matter what we do, we see busing issues arise,' Mr. Castagna said. 'A lot of times you get a lot of 'he said, she said' and have a hard time getting the whole story. Now we can see what you're doing and hear what you're saying.'"

Supporters of the change noted that the supervisors of students on buses are typically the drivers, who are also tasked with, well, driving. That’s a lot to juggle. They also point to stabbings at Franklin Regional High School as a game changer in conversations about student safety.

But some argue such recordings are a violation of students’ civil liberties. The ACLU has protested school-related video and audio surveillance in other areas, and its Pennsylvania chapter has raised some concerns about the bus recording change. From the Post-Gazette:

Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the legislation has 'severely diminished' students' right to privacy. 'We're teaching our kids to be accepting of the surveillance state, that they're going to be watched at all times,' Mr. Hoover said. 'They discuss sexuality, their home situation, their academic situation—and administrators could be picking up on those conversations if the technology is strong enough. I would hope that administrators are thoughtful enough to address challenging situations without having to put a microphone on every student in the building.'"

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.