In a significant decision in the security-conscious, post-Columbine era, a federal appeals court ruled today that video surveillance cameras installed in a middle school’s locker rooms violate the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of students.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled unanimously that students have a heightened expectation of privacy in areas of a school designated for them to change clothes. In its opinion in Brannum v. Overton County School Board, the court said:
Given the universal understanding among middle school age children in this country that a school locker room is a place of heightened privacy, we believe placing cameras in such a way so as to view the children dressing and undressing in a locker room is incongruent to any demonstrated necessity, and wholly disproportionate to the claimed policy goal of assuring increased school security, especially when there is no history of any threat to security in the locker rooms.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 24 middle school students against the Overton County, Tenn., school system and various school officials. In 2002, to boost security, school officials installed a video surveillance system throughout Livingston Middle School. An assistant principal and a representative of the security firm decided to place cameras in the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms, according to the suit. Images from the cameras were stored and were accessible to anyone with the proper password.
The locker room cameras came to light when a visiting girls’ basketball team noticed such a device in the room in which they were changing and complained. According to the suit, the district’s director of schools said the stored images contained “nothing more than images of a few bras and panties,” but the locker room cameras were soon removed.
In the students’ lawsuit, a federal district court rejected a request by school officials to throw out the suit on the grounds that the officials had qualified immunity.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit panel held that the principal and vice principal were not immune from the suit because it was clearly established under the law that the students had a right to be free of video surveillance in the locker rooms. As the court put it:
[A] a person of ordinary common sense, to say nothing of professional school administrators, would know without need for specific instruction from a federal court, that teenagers have an inherent personal dignity, a sense of decency and self-respect, and a sensitivity about their bodily privacy that are at the core of their personal liberty and that are grossly offended by their being surreptitiously videotaped while changing their clothes in a school locker room.
But the director of schools and members of the school board were immune, the appeals court said, because they were not aware that cameras had been placed in the locker rooms.
The case now goes back to the federal district court for further proceedings.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.