Surveillance is Not Security

This article was written in April of 2017.

Another student is dead.  In San Bernardino, CA, the parents of Jonathan Martinez are still grieving the loss of their child, the most recent victim of school shootings.  Other parents and school counselors will have explained to a special needs classroom why their teacher, Karen Smith, will not return to school.  In the wake of the horror and heartbreak of school violence, parents and communities demand response and action.  Some communities and school administrators believe that the installation of surveillance cameras can strengthen a school’s security program, but there is little evidence to prove that surveillance makes schools safer.

Surveillance cameras in schools generate more problems than they solve.  Surveillance violates the privacy and security of students and faculty.  Footage can easily be misinterpreted or deliberately taken out of context and used against both students and teachers.  Elaborate surveillance systems create a false sense of security while ignoring the most likely sources of danger.  School districts should invest their limited funds in something other than dubiously useful surveillance cameras.  Communities should implement a public health approach to school safety, instead of adding increasingly intrusive levels of surveillance.

No one argues the importance of school security.  The appropriate placement of security cameras allows those inside the building a line of sight to otherwise obscured entrances. Such placement usually includes exterior doors, or hallways leading to or from exterior doors.  Common sense approaches to school security include attending to the physical environment of the school, and promoting “natural surveillance” by the thoughtful, deliberate placement of walls, windows, and landscaping (“School Violence:  Prevention”).  Parents, school administrators, and communities deserve the opportunity to make use of any and all features, including technology such as security cameras, to improve the safety of the school environment.

Surveillance cameras serve a different purpose, that of recording activity within the walls of the school.  Surveillance does not inherently contribute to safety or the prevention of violence.  Proponents claim that the knowledge of surveillance may inhibit or deter violence or criminal behavior in areas such as parking lots, stairwells, and hallways.  Anecdotal evidence does seem to support that surveillance may affect student behavior, but the argument falls short of proving that surveillance is positive and effective.  The footage may identify a student who has harmed another student, or damaged school property, but neither the camera nor the footage can prevent or interfere with the behavior. The camera systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to install and maintain, and school budgets are already strained past capacity.  The burden rightly falls on administration to justify the expense.  When school systems propose utilizing these systems, they are almost inevitably met with some measure of resistance and controversy.

The arguments against surveillance systems carry weight.  The installation of surveillance cameras creates a slippery slope toward invasion of student and faculty privacy, accompanied by a negative psychological impact. Recordings can be ruled as subject to disclosure under open-records laws, or protected under FERPA, a gray area determined by a host of variables (Steketee).  Proponents of cameras argue that schools, hallways, and classrooms are public areas, and therefore not subject to the Fourth Amendment or the idea of a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.  However, public schools do not strictly fall under the definition of public areas.  They are categorized as restricted access spaces, because school administrators do have the right to limit access to the facility – an important component of school security (“Access to Public Property”).  School administrators stand on shaky legal and ethical ground when considering the installation of surveillance systems.

Regardless of definitions of public or restricted space, students should expect restrooms and locker rooms to be private spaces.  The Sixth Circuit Court agreed, in an important case, Brannum v. Overton County School Board.  Parents of students in the Overton County Tennessee school district filed charges against the school board upon the discovery of surveillance cameras in middle school locker rooms.  The court acknowledged that a school locker room is an area of diminished privacy, but the presence of recording equipment violated even that concession.  The court ruled that school administrators, especially, should have no “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” (Wolohan and Zou).   The case served the valuable purpose of not only settling the Overton school district situation, but establishing the fact that students do possess inherent rights regarding their privacy.  The case also addressed the key issue of consent.  The parents, who were never informed of the school’s actions, won the case.  Word spread, and parents and teachers began to speak out and demand accountability of their own districts’ existing or proposed systems.

Opponents of school surveillance, such as ACLU representative Judd Golden, insist that surveillance creates an atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion.  He calls the security “prison-style” and argues that “the message it sends to students is ‘We don’t trust you, and everybody is a suspect.’” (“ACLU Protests . . .”).  Students in Michigan formed a group to protest the installation of cameras, saying that the surveillance would “promote an atmosphere of distrust” in the school community (Rapp).   This mistrust works in both directions, as students’ trust in administration is likely diminished if they feel they are being watched (Villines). The loss of privacy, or perceived or threatened loss of privacy, violates the rights of both students and faculty, and contributes to a growing sense of anxiety and fearfulness.  This anxiety and fearfulness in response to surveillance can in turn contribute to a host of related health problems, which may potentially include “high blood pressure, obesity, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems, and even cancer” (Villines).  Researchers have long known that anxiety produces physical symptoms and illness.  Students and faculty alike already experience more than enough academic anxiety, and adding surveillance anxiety is dangerous and counter-productive.

The presence of surveillance cameras in schools poses a unique danger of interfering with the very purpose of education, which is to explore and discuss ideas.  In his Harvard Law Review article, Neil Richards asks the readers to “consider surveillance of people when they are thinking, reading, and communicating with others in order to make up their minds about political and social issues” (Richards).  Educators and students need to embark on these explorations without the damper of surveillance.  The pervasive presence of surveillance in the educational setting could result in an overall trend toward the acceptance of surveillance as “normal”, or even expected.  Creative thinking and respectful dissent should be encouraged in the classroom.  Surveillance hinders that purpose.

The very existence of surveillance footage creates an opportunity for its abuse.  Audio recordings, captured with some systems, can violate the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (Steketee).  Even without those violations, audio recordings create a potential for misuse.  A teacher’s comments or response to a student’s questions, appropriate in the context of an advanced biology class or Shakespeare analysis, could be clipped into an incriminating sound bite.  School administration, discontent with teachers on unrelated issues, would then possess “evidence” against them.  Yet without audio, video footage lacks context.  A clumsy student knocking another student over in the hallway and rushing to help them up could be misinterpreted as an assault.  Silent video footage would fail to capture some of the worst sorts of bullying and aggression, such as sexually harassing comments or racially motivated taunts.

Surveillance itself can contribute to racial disparity and tension in the school environment.  University of Buffalo and Canisius College professors Jeremy Finn and Tim Servoss conducted a study entitled “Student Suspensions and Arrests: The Role of School Security”. They discovered that schools with large populations of African American students tended to implement disproportionate security measures, resulting in higher incidence of suspension and arrest (Anzalone).  The implementation and application of surveillance cameras and footage could easily perpetuate that practice.  Shelli Weisburg, a legislative director of the Michigan ACLU, addressed the use of surveillance cameras outside locker rooms as a deterrent to petty theft.  She stated that when asked about the volume of footage to sift through, a local administrator claimed, “We know who the bad kids are” (Rapp).  Surveillance could become another means of enabling profiling in areas where minority students are already at a disadvantage.

Opponents raise serious questions as to who is collecting surveillance footage, and for what purposes and to what extent they will be permitted to use it.  Legitimate objections can be raised regarding the deliberate or unintentional bias involved in monitoring and recording students and teachers.  The very nature of surveillance “distorts the power relationships between the watcher and the watched, enhancing the watcher’s ability to blackmail, coerce, and discriminate against the people under its scrutiny” (Richards).  Surveillance almost certainly enhances prosecution, but not necessarily protection.  More than likely, it creates an increasing and self-perpetuating cycle of suspicion.  In the school setting, this damages the important relationship between students, teachers, and faculty, and creates an atmosphere hostile to learning.

Surveillance not only creates these problems of privacy and trust, it also creates a distraction from other legitimate issues.  Parents, students, and faculty alike can suffer the consequences of a false sense of security provided by surveillance cameras.  Kenneth Trump, president of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services stated, “The first and best line of defense is always a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body who will recognize strangers on campus, or report rumors, or report a student having a weapon on campus, and so on.” (Rapp).  School systems that boast “state of the art” security and surveillance systems may fall prey to the temptation to count on that system and become less vigilant.

Parents, comforted by the presence of school surveillance, may forget that the greatest threat to a child’s safety is most often someone close to the family, and usually out of the context of schools.  Less than two percent of child homicides happen at or near school or school activities (“Violence Prevention”).  And yet, in 2010, over two thousand six hundred children suffered a gun-related fatality.  A Children’s Defense Fund study reported that gun related violence was “the second leading cause of death among children and teens ages 1-19 and the number one cause among Black children and teens”, and showed that the risk of homicide, suicide, or accidental death was increased exponentially in homes with guns (Protect Children Not Guns).  Guns pose a significant threat to the safety of children, but the greatest danger from those guns is in homes, not schools.

While statistics prove that a child is extremely unlikely to suffer a fatal gunshot wound while at school or school activities, there is no denying the fact that violence does affect the school environment.  Instead of surveillance to record the problem, schools should turn to a public health approach, as suggested by the CDC (“School Violence:  Prevention”).  The public health approach focuses on prevention of violence at multiple, integrated levels of home, school, and society.  The CDC offers a plethora of cost-effective, proven resources, including programs targeting bullying and school-related violence (“School Violence: Prevention Tools and Resources”).  Communities and school systems must invest in prevention, instead of reaction and surveillance.  School violence exists in the larger scope of community violence, and must be addressed in that context, not in isolation.

Surveillance cameras do not inherently prevent violence; they record it.  It is chilling to note that footage exists of the Columbine shootings.  No security or surveillance camera would have prevented the recent San Bernardino tragedy.  Cedric Anderson showed his identification and entered through the front office, walked to his wife’s classroom, and open fired (Medina and Raney).  The fact that Mr. Anderson does appear to have a “criminal record, including domestic violence and weapons possession” begs the question as to whether there are other measures that could have prevented his murder/suicide plan which ended the lives of himself, his wife, and one student, and wounded another (Medina and Raney).  A public health approach, which addresses issues such as mental health and domestic violence, might have been more effective in addressing the issues which escalated into tragedy in San Bernardino.

Schools risk violating the privacy and undermining the security of students and faculty when surveillance cameras are installed.  The cameras create opportunity for the uninformed interpretation or unscrupulous use of the footage generated.  Communities should avoid a false sense of security provided by cameras which serve only as silent witnesses.  Surveillance cameras in the classroom would have, at best, provided grisly footage of the San Bernardino shooting. Cameras themselves could not have saved the lives of Jonathan Martinez or Karen Smith. Extensive surveillance systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars; money that would be better invested in programs focus on education and prevention.  School related violence, just like community violence, must be addressed and treated as a public health crisis.



Works Cited

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“ACLU Protests Cameras in Colorado Schools.” American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU, 25

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Anzalone, Charles. “Study Finds Tight School Security Can Have Unintended, Negative

Consequences.” University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. University at

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Medina, Jennifer, and Rebecca Fairley Raney. “San Bernardino School Shooting Leaves

Two Dead.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 Apr. 2017. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.

“Protect Children Not Guns 2012.” (n.d.): n. pag. Children’s Defense Fund. Children’s

Defense Fund, 2013. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.

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Rapp, David. “Privacy vs. Security.” Privacy vs. Security | Scholastic Inc,

n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

Richards, Neil M. “The Dangers of Surveillance.” Harvard Law Review. Harvard Law

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“School Violence: Prevention Tools and Resources.” Centers for Disease Control and

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Steketee, Amy. “The Legal Implications of Surveillance Cameras.” District Administration

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Wolohan, John T., and Xinxian Zou. “Court Blocks Locker Room Video Surveillance.”

     Athletic Business. Athletic Business, July 2008. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.