Why We Don’t Need Body Cameras in Schools

We should be wary of normalizing surveillance.
July 20, 2015 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on July 20, 2015.

Thanks in part to a series of high‐​profile police abuse incidents, a clear majority of Americans across political and racial demographics now support police officers wearing body cameras. Each year police officers conduct tens of thousands of SWAT raids and kill hundreds of people as well as thousands of dogs. Body cameras are a common sense reform that can increase accountability and transparency.

But this movement toward body cameras can be taken too far. While they may be suitable for police officers, some are proposing body cameras for principals and assistant principals in schools.

The Burlington Community School District in Iowa is outfitting school administrators with body cameras. The district, which includes nine schools, has already spent around $1,100 on 13 body cameras.

Advocates of body cameras should understand that they’re not necessarily appropriate for all times and places. We should be wary of normalizing surveillance. Children should grow up thinking of body cameras as tools that hold public servants with guns accountable, not devices worn by all manner of authority figures.

Arguments for body cameras in schools mirror those for policy officers. Burlington Community School District Superintendent Pat Coen says it’s about “personal accountability.” He and Mark Yeoman, the principal of a middle school in the district, floated the body camera idea after school camera footage showed that Yeoman had been wrongfully accused of kicking a student.

Body camera footage can indeed exonerate people wrongly accused of poor behavior, as police officers around the country can attest. But Yeoman was successfully absolved of wrongdoing thanks to a camera in the school, not a body camera.

The truth is, police officers and teachers have very different jobs that do not require the same approaches to oversight and accountability. Police officers are armed public servants tasked with protecting our rights. Teachers and school administrators educate children.

Body cameras on police officers capture video of contentious and sometimes fatal police encounters, and there is some evidence that the cameras provide incentives for officers and members of the public to improve their behavior.

The same cannot be said of body cameras on school administrators. Many schools already have security cameras and some schools have gone even further, installing metal detectors and deploying guards. There is no clear evidence that these measures are effective in preventing school violence, which has been in decline for years. In fact, there is evidence that these measures increase fear of crime among students and negatively impact how safe children feel at school.

Not only do cameras and other security measures negatively impact student perception of safety, they have resulted in student arrests for behavior that can and ought to have been handled without law enforcement.

Keep in mind that the Burlington Community School District did not buy the body cameras in response to a school shooting, stabbing, or rape. Rather, it was in response (at least in part) to a middle school principal being falsely accused of kicking a student. A proposal for body cameras in schools might be understandable, but no less wrongheaded, in the wake of a serious assault. Yet in response to a false accusation of kicking it is hard to see the body cameras as anything more than a worrying overreaction.

The widespread use of body cameras in schools would be only the latest example of the disturbing and unnecessary trend of school administrators implementing needless and potentially harmful measures in the name of student safety.

Beyond desensitizing American children to Big Brother, the widespread use of body cameras in schools could have a negative impact on children being abused at home or bullied at school.

If a principal is wearing a body camera, will a student be more or less likely to discuss abuse or bullying? The release, whether intended or not, of footage showing a student discussing bullying at school or domestic abuse could have devastating effects on the student. Students need to feel like they can confide in principals and vice‐​principals without the conversation being recorded. The underreporting of abuse and bullying could be an awful unintended consequence of body cameras in schools that administrators must strongly consider.

Teachers and school administrators do have an obligation to keep students safe, but there are real risks in using technology best suited for law enforcement in order to achieve that end.

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