Focus                                                             Page 12

Surveillance Cameras on

School Grounds    


Sara Clark 

In the aftermath of Columbine, school administrators have been wrestling with the unpleasant reality that many parents no longer view schools as a safe haven. As a pro-active safety measure, some school districts have turned to video surveillance cameras.

In Ohio, one suburban school district installed 76 cameras in two of its buildings after local law enforcement revealed potential vulnerabilities in the school’s safety plan. The number of cameras varies from district to district, depending on the size of the campus, history of violence and vandalism, and costs, among other factors.

Although surveillance cameras are intended to promote safety and protect property, school leaders should address several important legal considerations prior to installation.

CAREFULLY CONSIDER CAMERA PLACEMENT. In 2002, a school district in Tennessee installed cameras in the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms to improve security. After the cameras captured images of students in various stages of undress, parents sued the district, alleging the cameras violated the students’ rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed, awarding the parents more than $4 million in damages.

The case serves as a cautionary tale. Surveillance cameras should only be used in common areas, such as hallways, parking lots, cafeterias or areas where the expectation of privacy is low. Districts should refrain from installing cameras in semiprivate locations, notably locker rooms and restrooms — even if there is a history of bullying, theft or vandalism in such locations.

Camera placement also is critical to a comprehensive surveillance system. Local law enforcement can offer advice about where to place cameras. In Ohio, administrators from one district walked the entire campus with police officers who recommended locations and camera views. As a result, the district believes it operates a more cost-effective and efficient security system.

PROVIDE NOTICE. School districts should notify staff, parents, students and community members of the presence of surveillance cameras. Post signs in locations where cameras are used. Notification can be included in staff and student handbooks.

If your district already uses cameras, review the extent to which you have provided notice about the camera surveillance, especially in the immediate vicinity of the cameras.

PROTECT YOUR FOOTAGE. School districts should manage their surveillance cameras and footage in a way that protects against loss, unauthorized access, inappropriate disclosure and other misuse. Security measures can be physical (locks and swipe cards for monitoring rooms or data storage areas); electronic (passwords for accessing monitoring systems); and operational (restricting data access and using a standardized, auditable process when access is provided).

Staff members should be trained on the proper policies and procedures related to storage, retention and disposal of footage.

ENTER INTO DISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS. Many school districts provide local law enforcement agencies with remote access to their district’s cameras for use in emergencies. Any time information is shared between the district and a third party, a written agreement ought to outline the terms under which the footage is being provided. Some districts use a memorandum of understanding.

The agreement between the parties should include language regarding the security of the footage, access to footage, disclosure of footage to third parties, secondary use of footage, and retention and disposal of footage. The agreement also should bind the third party to privacy principles, including the protections set forth in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of student education records.

BE PREPARED TO HANDLE REQUESTS FOR FOOTAGE. School districts using surveillance cameras can expect requests from parents, citizens or news media who want to view camera footage. A major challenge for school districts is determining who has rights to view and receive footage.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office stated that when a camera captures the images of more than one student, the parents of every student who appears in the footage must consent to disclosure prior to anyone viewing or receiving a copy of the footage. More recently, however, the compliance office issued informal guidance stating the footage is a record only for those students directly involved in the incident (student fight, theft, vandalism, etc.). As a result, a parent of any involved student would be allowed to view the footage but would not be permitted to receive a copy unless the parents of the other involved students provided consent. Consent from parents of students in the background is not required.

The compliance office intends to issue updated guidance on the status of school video footage under the privacy act. In the interim, questions about current interpretation should be directed to FERPA@ed.gov.

Sara Clark is deputy director of legal services at the Ohio School Boards Association in Columbus, Ohio. E-mail: sclark@ohioschoolboards.org


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