Body cameras in schools: Are School Resource Officers (SROs) and principals missing the big picture?

Posted by on July 7, 2015

How quickly will students rush to the assistant principal or School Resource Officer (SRO) to report a student carrying a gun, a school shooting plot, or abuse taking place at their home if these adults have a camera rolling on their personal conversation?

Many students will view body cameras as an instant barrier that only reinforces their hesitancy to reach out to an adult authority figure. Other students, who may be more willing to take the risk of bringing their sensitive concerns to a principal or SRO, may now even think twice knowing that whatever they say will be recorded word-for-word with their faces center-camera and stored in high definition digital files.

But this isn’t stopping some police departments, and now even a school district administration, from equipping school police and administrators with bodycams to record day-to-day interactions with students and parents in their schools.

Iowa school district equips principals with body cameras

Just this week, The Des Moines Register reported that the Burlington Community School District in Iowa is equipping its principals and assistant principals with small, clip-on video cameras to record student and parent interactions with administrators. The moves come after one complaint against one principal was disproved via the use of school hallway surveillance cameras, according to the story.

The district’s superintendent, a retired National Guard colonel who served overseas where soldiers wore helmet cameras, feels the cameras provide “personal accountability.”

But the well-intended superintendent and his administrators seem to be missing the bigger picture. Their move of equipping educators with bodycams seems more like swatting flies with a sledgehammer than providing “accountability,” especially considering it comes after one allegation of administrator misconduct that was proven untrue by an existing hallway security camera.

Body camera use in schools risks relationship building, raises privacy questions

Slapping body cameras on SROs and principals adds yet another barrier to the already daunting task school-based police and administrators face in building trusting relationships with the hundreds of children they work with every day. Decades of school safety research and experience point to “relationships” between students and adults as one of, if not the, most critical factors for strengthening school safety. At a time when overloaded educators don’t have enough time as-is to get to know their students, the last thing we need is another obstacle to doing so.

The bodycams also present a long list of questions regarding potential privacy violations and fairness in discipline:

  • Will recording student conversations and details of their disciplinary issues, social and emotional concerns, and other incidences conflict with federal FERPA privacy rights?
  • Are the bodycam recordings public records that schools and/or police can be forced to turn over in response to legal requests made under public records laws?
  • How long will these recordings be stored? Where and how will they be stored? Who will have access and how will they be secured from unauthorized access?
  • Will these recordings be retained and used against students in disciplinary proceedings? How will they impact due process? How long can they be retained and how far down the road can they be used in future proceedings?

and the list goes on.

Body cameras fit in policing the streets, not in policing and disciplining the schools

Perhaps the most important question is, “Why are we even considering doing this in the first place?” Police and educators may feel this move is logical given broader societal trends with police departments moving to body cameras in response to racial and other tensions between police officers and their communities. But this thinking fails to apply context and purpose to their unique roles.

SROs, and certainly principals, are not making traffic stops on isolated city streets and dark back alleys. They are working with children — typically the same student body day-after-day — in a child-oriented setting, i.e., a school. By and large, allegations of administrator misconduct against students are minimal compared to the number of such encounters and number of schools operating on a given day. And when allegations do arise, most investigators can get to the bottom of it very quickly using hallway school security cameras and good ‘ole fashioned interviewing skills.

The cost of slapping bodycams on school-based police and educators far outweighs the benefits. Forget the costs of the cameras. It’s the cost of damaged or lost relationship opportunities that will set back safety in those schools.

Ken Trump

National School Safety and Security Services

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