School Surveillance: The Consequences for Equity and Privacy

“If schools continue to embrace the potential benefits that accompany surveillance technology,” assert the authors of a new report issued by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), “state policymakers must be prepared to confront, and potentially regulate, the privacy consequences of that surveillance.” And thus they define the fulcrum on which this seesaw of a report rests.

Authors J. William Tucker and Amelia Vance do not exaggerate the breadth of education technology that can be used for “surveillance,” either by design or incidentally, citing numerous examples that range from the commonplace to ideas that Big Brother would love. We are all familiar with cameras monitoring public areas in school buildings, but as police use of body cameras increases, school resource officers will likely be equipped with them as well. The authors note that a district in Iowa even issued body cameras to school administrators. (Our own Mike Petrilli wondered a few years about putting cameras in every classroom.)

Cameras have been commonplace inside and outside of school buses for years, but now student swipe cards and GPS bus tracking mean that comings and goings can be pinpointed with increasing accuracy. Web content filters are commonplace in school libraries, but the proliferation of one-to-one devices has led to monitoring applications for use both in the classroom and in students’ homes. Even a student who provides his or her own laptop can be fully monitored when using school Wi-Fi networks. Social media monitoring of students is an imprecise science, but the authors report it is becoming more sophisticated and more widespread in order to identify cyberbullying incidents or to predict planned violent acts on school grounds. And into the realm of science fiction, they add increasing use of thumbprint scanners, iris readers, and other biometric data gathering apparatus.

The authors are thorough in listing the intended benefits of all of these surveillance efforts—student safety, anti-bullying, food-service auditing, transportation efficiency, etc. Those benefits likely made the adopted surveillance an easy sell in schools that have gone this route. But on the other side of the fulcrum are two equally large areas of concern: privacy and equity. These issues are addressed by the report on a higher, more policy-oriented level. Privacy concerns are addressed in terms of which data are, by default, kept by schools (all of it) and for what length of time (indefinitely). The authors assert that without explicit record keeping policies (or unless the storage space runs out), there is neither will nor incentive to do anything but save the data. Additionally, there are unanswered questions, such as what constitutes a student’s “educational record” and by whom that data may be accessed. For example, details of disciplinary actions may be educational records, but what about the surveillance video that led to that disciplinary action? Equity concerns are addressed in terms of varying and unequal degrees of surveillance (high school kids who can afford cars are not monitored on the way home at all, for example) as well as inequitable “targeting” of surveillance techniques on certain students before anything actionable has occurred.

As a result of this rather wide gulf between facts and policy, even NASBE’s good and thorough list of suggestions for state boards to attempt to balance student safety, privacy, and equity concerns with policies seem more like a skateboarder’s efforts to catch up with a speeding train. Those recommendations are: 1) keeping surveillance to a bare minimum, including discontinuing existing efforts once they are no longer needed, 2) using surveillance only in proportion to the perceived problem, 3) keeping all surveillance methods as transparent as possible to students, parents, and the public, 4) keeping discussion of surveillance use and possible discontinuation thereof open to the public, 5) empowering students and parents to use surveillance data in their own defense when disputes arise between students or between students and staff, 6) improving broader inequities in schools so that there is less precedent for families to believe that surveillance is being used inequitably, and 7) training for state and local boards, administrators, teachers, and staff on all aspects of surveillance methods, data use, public records laws, etc.

Balancing students’ safety and their privacy is a difficult and sensitive job, and the recommendations enumerated here are good ones. But how many state board members have the bandwidth to address surveillance issues at that level of granularity? How many local board members (perhaps a more logical place for these decisions to be made)? And what happens when board member seats turn over? Legislative means of addressing these concerns are not even touched upon in this report.

In the end, it seems that the juggernaut of technology has spawned an unprecedented level of student surveillance, and diffuse, widespread fear for student safety—whether legitimate or not—serves only to “feed the beast.” As well-intentioned as this report and its recommendations are, even the most casual observer of today’s schools can’t help but conclude that the seesaw is definitely tipped toward more and more varied surveillance that is unlikely to be checked at the state policy level.

SOURCE: J. William Tucker and Amelia Vance, “School Surveillance: The Consequences for Equity and Privacy,” National Association of State Boards of Education (October, 2016).

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,