Video Surveillance Rules For School Districts

By Carlton Purvis, Published Jul 09, 2013, 12:00am EDT

As surveillance camera use by local governments has increased, so has the public's curiosity regarding how they are regulated. In response, local government's are creating surveillance guidelines to govern how their systems are used. We found a good attempt by a school district in Washington state to establish use and privacy guidelines for surveillance in an educational setting. 

Last week, Everett Public Schools approved a set of privacy rules governing surveillance among its 30 schools. The rules outline procedures for:

  • Location Restrictions
  • Use of Footage
  • Sharing Footage
  • Signage
  • Retention

Restrictions 

The school board says cameras can be placed anywhere where there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy and specifically bars them from being placed in locker rooms and restrooms. It also bars audio from being recorded along with video except on school buses.

Use of Footage

The superintendent must approve any surveillance activities within the district and requestors must explain why they want to use it (along with supporting data) and how long it would be in use. If the reason involves school employees, the human resources department must review the request to make sure it does not violate any collective bargaining agreements. 

The only lawful reasons for using video surveillance recordings, according to the new rules are “promotion of a safe school environment,” employee and student discipline proceedings, protection of district property, “adherence to all district legal and administrative directives” and law enforcement proceedings. Any other purposes must be reviewed by the superintendent.

The district should define what surveillance activities qualify as "promotion of a safe school environment." The phrase is broad and leaves room for interpretation, however this could function as a catch-all for when camera use is necessary, but does not necessarily fall into other categories.

Sharing With the Public

The school district has a duty to protect student privacy, but it also has a duty to make records available to the public. The rules limit live-monitoring to administrators and law enforcement on a need-to-know basis only, however the public can request copies of video recordings using the public records request process. Requests will be granted on a case-by-case basis, the document says. The school district should at least cite possible public records laws exemptions to explain what types of footage would be exempt from disclosure. Despite what some school districts assume, FERPA, which governs release of educational records, may not be enough [link no longer available] to block the release of surveillance footage. For example, in 2005 a New York court decided surveillance tape was not an education record so footage was subject to release. 


Signage

The new rules require signage that lets people know surveillance is in progress and each school year, the district will send students and parents a notice reminding them that certain areas are being monitored. Signage is common for government agencies using surveillance and is already required by some state [link no longer available] and local laws. 

Retention and Effectiveness

Except for video being used in investigations, the district says it "will not maintain recordings for more than 30 days." The guide notes that this does not apply if a law enforcement agency sets up its own surveillance on district property.

System effectiveness will be reviewed on a regular basis, however, the document does not quantify how often that will be or how effectiveness will be measured. 

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A Guard Dog With No Teeth

One thing the school board missed was establishing procedures for when the rules are broken. The board should also establish clear consequences for when the video system is used inappropriately and designate an agent to handle these cases. 

Background

Everett Public Schools currently has 82 cameras placed in hallways and common areas and has plans to upgrade to a network of 400-600 over the next year (the district provided a copy of the RFP to IPVM and we will review the project details in a later update). Ahead of the upgrades, the school district wanted to set the record straight on acceptable use for surveillance. The board debated and decided that these rules would govern surveillance use district-wide.

A Good Template for other School Districts

Overall this guide looks like a good basis for schools using surveillance systems. It takes a proactive approach to addressing common privacy concerns and surveillance camera use. The main criticisms from both the public and civil liberties groups deal with camera placement, who has access, and retention rates. The Everett School Board created policies that addressed them all. And rarely do you see government agencies in the United States make the process of establishing surveillance rules so open (the rules were reviewed and presented at open school board meetings). If everything works smoothly, then these rules could be effective, however not having a plan for when things do not could be a problem.

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