Parkland Commission: Police Should Get Real-Time Access to School Security Cameras

By Benjamin Herold — December 13, 2018 6 min read
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A controversial recommendation to arm some teachers has generated most of the headlines.

But in its 407-page preliminary report released yesterday, the state commission investigating the Parkland school shooting also suggests a number of other security changes that could have major implications—including giving law-enforcement live, real-time access to all school camera systems in the nation’s sixth-largest school district.

Read Education’s Week Special Report, After Parkland

Proponents say the move would help police respond to threats more quickly and effectively. Last February, when a gunman went on a shooting rampage that left 17 people dead and 17 injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Broward Schools officials did not provide such direct access to cameras, hampering efforts to locate the shooter and rescue victims, the commission wrote.

And a spokeswoman for Broward Schools said the district is already “working closely with the Broward Sheriff’s Office to provide a live video feed from BCPS school cameras to the BSO during periods of an elevated threat level.”

But civil-liberties groups are already questioning the potential shift, saying it may be illegal and would almost certainly have far-reaching negative consequences, including infringing on students’ privacy rights.

The ACLU of Florida will look into a possible legal challenge, said Michelle Morton, the group’s juvenile justice coordinator.

“Policing would undoubtedly be very effective if police could watch us all the time,” Morton said. “But we don’t live in a police state.”

Improving police response

The 16-member Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission is led by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualitieri. It also includes the fathers of two Parkland victims.

The commission was formed to investigate what went wrong during the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14, as well as to make recommendations for improvement.

The group’s preliminary report, which is not yet final, details the convoluted chain of communications that occurred at Stoneman Douglas in the aftermath of a gunman opening fire inside a classroom building.

During the law-enforcement response to the shooting, for example, an assistant principal and a security specialist were in the Stoneman Douglas camera room, watching surveillance footage. They broadcast what they saw to another assistant principal. That assistant principal then relayed the information to a sergeant, who in turn broadcast the information out to the deputies in the classroom building where the rampage occurred.

Significant confusion resulted. In some cases, responding law enforcement officers believed they were getting live reports on the shooter’s real-time movements, when in fact the tape being described to them was on a 26-minute delay.

The mix-up “misled officers and deputies and adversely affected their decision-making and victim rescue efforts,” the commission wrote.

In response, their preliminary report suggests, “the Broward County Public Schools should immediately provide law enforcement with live and real time access to all school camera systems.”

During the commission’s public hearing Wednesday, Gualitieri said some Florida school districts already allow such access. “We have access to every camera and every school in Pinellas County that we can dial up at any moment,” he said.

The advocacy group formed by the families of the Parkland massacre’s 17 victims supports the commission’s call for the 271,000-student Broward school system to join their ranks.

Stand with Parkland supports access for law enforcement to school cameras,” said Tony Montalto, whose 14-year old daughter Gina was killed at Stoneman Douglas. “We also feel they should have remote access if responding to a call for help.”

Legal concerns

Federal law, though, could be a barrier.

It’s unclear whether long-term video surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures, said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, the senior counsel for the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Such a practice could also have a chilling effect on students’ First Amendment right to free expression, she said.

In addition, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, prevents schools from sharing students’ educational records without parents’ consent.

There is considerable uncertainty in the field as to the circumstances under which video recordings of students should be considered part of such records. There is also confusion as to the circumstances under which student information can be shared with law enforcement.

The U.S. Department of Education recently issued guidance on the first point, saying that photos or videos are part of a student’s education record when they are “directly related to a student” and maintained by the school or someone acting on behalf of the school. Among the examples cited by the department in which videos would count as student records: surveillance footage showing students fighting in the hallway, that is then used to mete out discipline.

But there is an “exclusion” to the law, the department noted, for “records created and maintained by a law enforcement unit of an educational agency or institution for a law enforcement purpose.” If a school resource officer, for example, creates and maintains school surveillance videos for law-enforcement purposes, then those videos are not considered education records, the department wrote.

The short story is that “independent access to surveillance video for law enforcement would not inherently violate FERPA,” said Amelia Vance, the director of education privacy and the policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think tank.

But the details can get tricky.

The downsides of surveillance

And even if the commission’s recommendation can be implemented without running afoul of FERPA, Vance said, it would likely prove “extremely problematic.”

Schools could become more likely to hand relatively small matters over to the police, leading to more students (and especially more students of color) being referred to the criminal justice system. Law enforcement could also seek to use such surveillance footage for unrelated investigations of students’ behaviors outside of school. Immigration-enforcement could seek to access the footage to search for undocumented students.
Levinson-Waldman of the Brennan Center shared those concerns, calling expanded law-enforcement access to school security cameras “unequivocally a bad idea.”

It’s natural for law enforcement agencies to push for tools that may help them do their jobs better, said Morton of the ACLU of Florida. But while the Parkland massacre and other school shootings are horrific tragedies, she said, they remain statistically rare, and it may not be wise to craft far-reaching policies that will shape the day-to-day lives of thousands of schools and millions of students based primarily on such incidents.

The underlying question, Morton said, is whether any safety gains outweigh the consequences of even more expansive surveillance. “Just because we have the technology to do this doesn’t mean we should,” Morton said.

Photo: Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks to commissioners during a meeting of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. The commission was formed to investigate the shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on February 14, 2018. --Josh Ritchie for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.