Dispel ‘Big Brother’ Fears With Proper Policies

Adopt a policy, comply with it and communicate it to students, parents and campus staff.

I just came across the article “Big Brother Invades Our Classrooms” that originally ran on AlterNet and is now being featured on Salon.com. It pretty much is a recap of the privacy concerns that have been circulating since the expanded deployment of video surveillance in the nineties. It also covers Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and GPS tracking software at schools around the nation.

Here are some of the instances cited as examples of how K-12 districts are supposedly using technology to infringe on the privacy of students:

  • RFID for student identification and tracking: “As a student enters the school or pass beneath a doorway equipped with an RFID reader, the tag ID is read, recorded and sent to a server in the school’s administrative office. The captured data not only provides an attendance list (sent to the teacher’s PDA), but tracks the student’s movement throughout the day.”
  • GPS to prevent truancy: “In Anaheim [Calif.], about 75 seventh- and eighth-graders from Dale and South Junior High Schools are taking part in the pilot program. Students with four or more unexcused absences have ‘volunteered’ to carry a handheld GPS device. Participation in the program will enable the students to avoid being prosecuted and a potential stay in juvenile hall.”
  • Video surveillance to monitor campuses: “In 2010, the Connetquot Central School District in Islip, LI, NY, deployed a district-wide surveillance system to centrally monitor all 11 schools. School administrators claim that the system cut vandalism by 60 percent. More troubling, the school system allows the Suffolk County Police Department to access the cameras.”

Am I crazy here, or aren’t these legitimate attempts to improve school safety and reduce truancy? Video surveillance technology can help schools better manage the children in their care, detect bullying and provide evidence in the many cases of vandalism that occur on campuses every year. RFID and GPS are excellent ways schools can monitor children, keeping them safe either from potential abductors or from themselves, in the case of students skipping class. In fact, not having these technologies can put children in jeopardy and expose campuses to needless liability.

Of course, there are times when video surveillance, RFID and GPS are misused. The Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania is a prime example. In 2010 it paid out more than $610,000 to settle two lawsuits that claimed the district spied on students in their homes using the cameras in school-issued laptops.

The case came about when the school board issued nearly 2,300 laptops to students at two high schools to use in class and to take home daily. However, district officials did not inform students or parents that school personnel could remotely track the computers and turn on the embedded webcams. The webcam snapped hundreds of photos of one student in his bedroom. Afterward, the student was called on the carpet by school officials because the photos appeared to show he was taking pills, which turned out to be Mike & Ike candy.

In this instance, the district was rightly condemned for misusing technology.

Both the Lower Merion case and the AlterNet article highlight the need for good technology policies. These policies must outline the appropriate use of video surveillance, RFID, GPS and other technologies, and school officials must follow those rules. Additionally, understanding and following the letter and intent of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) will help to ensure your campus is sharing incident information appropriately with local authorities.

Most importantly, school officials must communicate with parents, staff and students on how and when the technology will be used, as well as who will have access to the data it captures. By doing so and by combining these approaches with other non-security measures such as education, you have taken a big step toward addressing the “Big Brother” fears that could arise.

When harnessed appropriately, technology can do wonders to save precious school resources and, more importantly, protect students, teachers and school property. Don’t let the lack of a good policy, lack of adherence to your policy or the lack of communicating that policy to your stakeholders jeopardize technology’s usefulness and existence on your campus.

Related Articles:

If you appreciated this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

About the Author

Robin Hattersley Gray

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

Leading in Turbulent Times: Effective Campus Public Safety Leadership for the 21st Century

This new webcast will discuss how campus public safety leaders can effectively incorporate Clery Act, Title IX, customer service, “helicopter” parents, emergency notification, town-gown relationships, brand management, Greek Life, student recruitment, faculty, and more into their roles and develop the necessary skills to successfully lead their departments. Register today to attend this free webcast!

Get Our Newsletters
Campus Safety HQ