School Climate & Safety

Surveillance Tech Is Supposed to Make Students Feel Safer. For Many, It Doesn’t

By Alyson Klein — October 05, 2023 3 min read
CCTV Security monitoring student in classroom at school.
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Surveillance cameras, social media monitoring software, and other technology used to improve school security doesn’t deliver on its promises and makes some students feel a lot less safe, according to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union.

These technologies are teaching “students the wrong lessons about issues like authenticity, risk-taking, and the right to live free from surveillance, undermining their privacy, and eroding student trust in teachers, school staff, and administrators,” the report argues, citing responses from a nationally representative survey of 502 14- to 18-year-olds conducted in October 2022 by YouGov, a market research company. The organization also conducted focus groups with students.

Among the findings:

  • About a third of survey respondents said they “always feel like I’m being watched.”
  • More than one in 10 said surveillance makes them feel “anxious,” “exposed,” “paranoid,” or “violated.”
  • More than a quarter—27 percent—worry about how the information gleaned from surveillance tech could be used to discipline them and their friends.
  • 22 percent worry about how and whether that information could be shared with law enforcement.

Students are also concerned that surveillance tech could violate their privacy around health issues.

For instance, just over 20 percent worried that it could help law enforcement or school officials identify students seeking reproductive health care, including abortions, which are now illegal beyond the earliest stages of pregnancy in many states. Another 18 percent worried they could flag students seeking gender-affirming care.

Companies that produce and sell surveillance technology stress its track record in preventing school shootings. But the ACLU contends those claims aren’t backed by evidence. In fact, the report notes that surveillance cameras were in place at schools where 8 of the 10 deadliest shootings occurred over the last two years but did not prevent those attacks.

Districts purchasing the tech would be better off devoting resources to “proven efforts that truly ‘work’ to promote school safety and student wellbeing, such as mental health supports and anti-bias initiatives,” the ACLU argues.

What to consider before making a big school security purchase

District leaders seeking to purchase surveillance technology for school safety should first consider the possible benefits in light of the potential costs to students’ sense of well-being and reach out extensively to their school communities for feedback before making any big purchases, the ACLU recommended.

Those suggestions are in line with what the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has always advised when it comes to purchasing surveillance tech, said Keith Krueger, the executive director of the organization, which represents district tech leaders.

Before purchasing any kind of surveillance tech, district leaders should ask themselves what problem they’re trying to solve, think about what the potential harms of the tech might be and how to alleviate them, and come up with a plan for continually evaluating the effectiveness of the tech, Krueger said.

The team working through those issues should include not only tech leaders, but school counselors, curriculum specialists, classroom teachers, and if possible, a student representative. Once districts have chosen to purchase surveillance tech, they need to be transparent about how they arrived at that decision and explain how student wellness and privacy will be respected, Krueger said.

Educators are “really confronting an unprecedented student mental health crisis and wellness is a huge concern,” Krueger said. “No student should be made to feel vulnerable or otherwise marginalized. That should be a fundamental precept, and district leaders and technology companies have to partner on effective solutions that prioritize student privacy.”

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