Schools have a responsibility to create a safe environment for students. To address campus safety issues, many K-12 schools, districts, and states are incorporating video security technology—according to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 80% of public schools in the US use security cameras on campus.
As video surveillance on campus becomes the norm, some thought leaders are also calling for caution. Video security shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction to safety issues—it should be a thoughtful assessment made with proper consideration for student safety, privacy, and equity.
This article provides a four-step framework for developing school video surveillance policies that are effective, thoughtful, and responsible.
“There is absolutely a growing market for this [technology],” says Sara Collins, a policy counsel for FPF’s Education Privacy Project. But schools typically don’t know how to communicate or justify it to parents, she adds, “and they don’t necessarily know why they’re doing it.”
Setting clear video surveillance goals is like creating a roadmap for your policies. When you know your intended destination, it’s much easier to get there.
What outcomes do you hope to achieve with video security? Explicitly state the goals of your surveillance efforts. Starting your policy creation process with clear goals has many benefits, including:
To develop the goals for your school or district, you can draw from the examples below:
Safety: Protection from physical and external threats
Deterrence: Discourage damaging student or staff behavior.
Use surveillance to detect and prevent:
Accountability: In the event of a conflict, hold the correct parties responsible and take appropriate action.
“Courts have generally upheld that cameras placed in public locations—where students would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy—do not violate the Fourth Amendment and that classrooms are public places though a school restroom or locker room is not.” - School Surveillance: The Consequences for Equity and Privacy.
After you identify your goals for video surveillance, you’ll likely have an idea of where on campus you want to install them.
At this point, it’s important to be aware of where cameras are and aren’t legally permitted. Students have certain rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment, and administrators should ensure that camera placement is compliant with legal standards concerning surveillance and privacy rights.
Areas security cameras are permitted and commonly used:
Areas security cameras are permitted but less commonly used and should be deployed with extra thought:
Areas security cameras are NOT permitted:
Smart sensors can help monitor areas where cameras aren't permitted. Motion sensors can detect activity after-hours, and air quality sensors can detect vape, THC, and smoke.
Creating a balance between student privacy and school safety can feel challenging. To start, consider two things: controlling access to security footage and properly communicating privacy expectations.
Privacy concerns don’t stop with where you place security cameras—it’s equally important to consider what you do with video footage after it’s recorded.
Schools have a responsibility to treat surveillance footage with care and discretion. Everything you do with the footage should be in service of the safety of your school’s learning environment and student well-being.
Besides practicing strong cybersecurity protocols, schools must set policies for security footage access.
When deciding who will have access to security footage, refer to the goals you initially identified. The problems you are trying to solve will guide the type of footage you collect and who will have access to it.
Based on your goals, you may decide to extend access to:
Extending access to video surveillance footage is no longer all-or-nothing.
Many modern video security platforms allow you to create detailed user roles with custom permissions and levels of access. This enables you to tightly control access to video footage, including on a camera-by-camera basis.
Examples of different role customizations:
By creating clear policies that describe who can access security footage and under what circumstances, you can better protect student privacy while improving campus safety.
“Warnick’s transparency principle mandates informing the population under surveillance of the practices and the policies that govern its use. Transparency respects the “personhood of those within the population” but also “prevents feelings of betrayal when a violation of privacy is unexpected, and thus allows for a greater degree of trust between students and schools.” – NASBE article.
It's essential to communicate your surveillance policy to all students, parents, staff, and visitors on campus. This not only shows respect for all parties being surveilled—but it's also critical when it comes to adhering to privacy laws.
Privacy laws take into consideration the idea of “reasonable expectation of privacy." By fairly disclosing your surveillance policies, you can properly set expectations of what level of privacy or lack of privacy individuals on campus will experience.
How to communicate your surveillance and privacy policies:
Sample signage language as recommended by ASCIP:
VIDEO SURVEILLANCE ON CAMPUS
School district buildings and grounds are equipped with electronic surveillance for the safety of students, staff, and visitors. Your actions may be recorded and preserved.
What to include in your surveillance policy notification:
“Without transparency, there can be no trust. Parents and other stakeholders have doubted whether to trust schools with their child’s privacy. Partly, this distrust stemmed from the dearth of answers from many states, districts, and schools on what data were being collected, how they were used, and how they were protected.” - NASBE article.
At its best, video security helps create an environment in which students are safer. A large part of that involves creating the trust that the school administration has their best interests at heart and will do right by students.
“The problem is not with the technology itself but with how people use it. Inherent or implicit biases may cause a principal or law enforcement officer to think that a black student reaching into someone’s backpack is stealing when the same action by a white student fails to raise the same suspicion.” – NASBE article.
Even with good intentions, everyone is at risk of falling prey to unconscious biases. Video surveillance is a powerful tool with many security and operational benefits, but it's also just that—a tool. Its outcomes depend heavily on how real people use it.
As you develop surveillance policies, it’s important to keep this in mind.
There is a positive takeaway amid these calls for caution: video surveillance also empowers schools to create a more fair, equitable, and unbiased environment than before.
Without video security, many conflicts can devolve into murky “he-said-she-said” situations, in which school administrators are forced to choose who to believe. In these circumstances, it can be even more difficult for unconscious biases not to arise—even biases that seem otherwise reasonable, like the bias to believe a high-performing student over a low-performing student or to believe a teacher over a student.
Video surveillance provides clear evidence that helps administrators uncover the truth of a conflict. It can help free investigations from underlying biases and create a safer and fairer environment for everyone on campus.
Schools are under immense pressure to implement newer, better, and smarter ways to keep students safe. Video surveillance is a powerful technology that many schools are deploying—and by developing clear and intentional surveillance policies, you can set your school up for success and make the most out of video security.
If you’re interested in video surveillance for your school or district, Rhombus can help. We’ve worked with schools and districts across the country and have the experience to help you implement video security that’s responsible and effective.
Many schools are using relief funds to prepare for a safe return to in-person learning on-campus. The good news is that schools have plenty of flexibility in deciding how to go about this. The challenge is—how do you strike a balance between using the funds to address immediate needs, and providing long-term value to your school, students, and faculty? For many schools, Rhombus' video security solution is an effective two-pronged approach to this challenge. Rhombus provides smart security cameras with a unified platform that's ideal for schools who want a system that's powerful, but easy to use.
Video surveillance is a tool for campus safety that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in schools. For campuses that already use security cameras or have plans to implement them, it's essential to understand what is and isn’t legally permitted.