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Video surveillance and the law

Is Big Brother watching you? In a session that invoked George Orwell’s famous treatise on the government and privacy, panelists discusses the legal ramifications of video surveillance in schools.

The Friday session was part of the Council of School Attorneys (COSA) School Law Seminar, held in conjunction with NSBA’s Annual Conference in Boston.

The panel included Kathleen Styles, chief privacy officer with the U.S. Department of Education. Also on the panel were two lawyers with the Union County Public Schools in Monroe, North Carolina: Michele Morris and Deborah Smith.

Security camera usage in schools and school buses has increased from 19 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2008. “We can image that it has increased since then,” said Smith.

Courts have determined that schools and school buses are not private places, and that teachers, school staff, and students do not have an expectation of privacy in these places.

However, school officials must be careful when using video surveillance in considering what the surveillance will be used for, who will view it, and what kind of record does it create?

If it’s a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) record or a personal record, there are regulations about who may view it and how it’s stored.

Another issue is videos made by students in the classroom and in the school. “We have a student privacy guidance,” says Styles, “on how we think you should handle videos that students make themselves. The most common questions are from district that doesn’t want to release it to the press.”

The panel recommended school boards and their legal representation pay careful attention to developing sound and robust board policies that address:

  • Notice to the public of the recording
  • Maintenance of equipment
  • Retention of videotapes
  • Access to and use of video cameras
  • Area of classroom/school buildings that are/are not recorded
  • Review process for videotapes
  • Who and how often the reviews take place.
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