States Should Ensure Schools Properly Use Surveillance Technologies, Report Urges

By Evie Blad — October 20, 2016 3 min read
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States should set policies to ensure that schools are properly using surveillance technology—such as web filters, biometric scanners, and security cameras—and that they are properly storing and safeguarding the resulting data, a new report says.

While surveillance technology can have many benefits, including making schools safer and keeping students on task, it can also have unintended consequences in areas like equity and privacy, says the report, released Thursday by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

While states have introduced more than 400 bills on student data privacy since 2014, “few have addressed privacy protections for school surveillance,” the report says.

Meanwhile, by the 2013-14 school year, 75 percent of U.S. K-12 schools were using security cameras, the latest federal data show. And surveillance has expanded far beyond cameras: Some schools even use radio-frequency ID tags to track students’ movements in schools and buses and to restrict or allow access in certain parts of their campuses, the report says.

“Nearly every responsibility that schools shoulder includes an element of surveillance—from ensuring that preschoolers do not wander off, to keeping third graders on task, to stopping bullying and sexting. These responsibilities are not new, but schools’ increased ability to monitor students continuously is,” says the report written by J. William Tucker, a data and technology legal fellow for NASBE, and Amelia Vance, the organization’s director of education data and technology. “This capability—coupled with schools’ adoption of surveillance technologies, concerns over student privacy, and increased research on major discipline disparities—makes it vital that state policymakers create guardrails around school surveillance to ensure equity and privacy are not undermined.”

Some of the potential negative effects of surveillance technologies, according to the report:

  • “Security measures can interfere with the trust and cooperation learning requires by creating barriers among students, teachers, and officials and casting schools in a negative light in students’ eyes,” the report says. “As a result, students may feel less nurtured, more uncomfortable in their learning environment, and more fearful of voicing their opinions in class.”
  • Data and footage collected by surveillance technology could exacerbate discipline disparities because they are more likely to be used in schools that enroll mostly students of color.
  • The data may collect a “permanent record” of an event or behavior that affects a student’s life longer than it would have had it not been recorded.

State Policies on School Surveillance and Student Privacy

The report recommends state policies that include the following considerations:

  • Minimization: Policymakers should ensure that the benefits of technology outweigh potential negative effects.
  • Proportionality: Policies should ensure that surveillance is appropriate by more clearly outlining when and where it can be used.
  • Transparency: States should require schools to publicize their surveillance policies, disclose data that’s collected, and share how that data will be used and protected.
  • Openness: Policies should include a call for local input and regular review.
  • Empowerment: “Surveillance policies that serve only to punish or judge students are likely to undermine trust,” the report says. “State policymakers can ensure that policies include equitable principles on which records are available to students, how they can access them, due process protections, and opt-ins or opt-outs where feasible.
  • Equity: Policymakers should ensure they are doing what they can to address inequities in school discipline, including encouraging schools to consider alternatives to zero-tolerance policies.

You can read the whole report here.

Photo: Three surveillance cameras placed in the ceiling are part of the security in place in the lobby of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. -Mark Lennihan/AP-File

Related reading on school surveillance and student privacy:

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