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Op-Ed: “Big Brother” in the Schools (New York Newsday)

By Robert Perry and Donna Lieberman — Without meaningful deliberation, but with astonishing speed, the City Council has passed a bill mandating the installation of video surveillance cameras in city schools.

Do security cameras belong inside schools? Will they make students and teachers safer? Would other types of security measures be more effective? Did the council address the privacy concerns that arise when cameras are trained on teachers and students inside schools?

The bill is silent on these issues. And, it appears, so were most of the City Council members. Not that there was much opportunity to answer – or even ask – such questions. In less than 48 hours the amended bill had raced through hearings and a vote before two committees, and was passed by the full Council.

The new law would direct the Dept. of Education “in consultation with the NYPD” to install cameras when “deemed appropriate for safety purposes.” Cameras can be installed in classrooms, hallways, gymnasiums, study halls – in any area where a student or teacher does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Under this standard cameras could turn up just about anywhere but a toilet stall.

The legislation makes the schools and the NYPD partners in the installation of school security cameras, but places no constraints on who controls or has access to the images captured by these cameras.

There’s not a word about the security or confidentiality of images created by school cameras. Is it possible students’ images could end up in videotaped police line-ups? Or on the Internet?

These questions are not far fetched. The NYPD was harshly criticized in the late 1990s for using high-school year book photos to catalog potential criminal suspects. More recently a shockingly disturbing image of a suicide created by the department’s Viper Unit was placed on a publicly accessible web site.

But, these serious concerns aside, will security cameras make schools safer?

The bill’s legislative intent states that cameras have “greatly assisted in reducing crime.” But in testimony before the City Council last year Benjamin Tucker, the education department’s chief safety officer, stated it was not clear how effective video cameras, apart from other measures, had been in enhancing school safety. The department has undertaken a comprehensive safety strategy that includes new removal options for disruptive students, expanded support services to effect positive change in student behavior and attitude, and more school safety agents and disciplinary and support staff.

When asked at a City Council hearing last year to name his top-priority expenditures for making schools safer, the NYPD’s head of school safety identified staff development, better radio systems and youth development – not video cameras.

It seems the City Council has put the technological cart before the horse. The bill mandates installation of the school cameras — and then directs the education department to consider the factors that may warrant their installation.

And this high-tech “cart” comes at a steep price. According to testimony submitted to the Council, the cost of installing or upgrading cameras in just ten schools was nearly three-quarters of a million dollars; maintenance runs about ten percent of the initial capital investment.

Electronic surveillance may be an easy answer – but the incorrect answer – to the question, how do we make schools safe? And there are also pedagogical concerns. Putting students under video surveillance sends the message that we view schools as potential crime scenes, not as communities of learning, where the entire community must learn to mediate conflict constructively.

The mayor would be wise to veto this bill. Educational professionals are capable of determining when and under what circumstances cameras may be necessary to protect the safety of students and teachers. (We would argue that the use of video cameras in schools should be a security strategy of last resort.)

And the City Council must create guidelines that protect against the use of school security cameras to undermine the rights of privacy, speech and association — no less essential than security in creating an environment conducive to learning. If these protections are not created, the school-camera issue could become, quite literally, a horror show.

Robert Perry is legislative director with the New York Civil Liberties Union; Donna Lieberman is the organization’s executive director.

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