Privacy SOS

Cameras in schools: the rule of unintended consequences strikes again

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People are obviously concerned about school shootings. Even one is too many, and the US has witnessed many more than one in the recent decade. And when people are concerned about something, they usually move to act. "We need to do something!" is a common refrain after horrible incidents like the Newtown shooting. 

But are we doing the right things?

Is turning our schools into barracks on lockdown the right way to stop school violence? What about adding more police officers? An ACLU of Massachusetts study found that when we put more police officers in schools, the end result is that we usher more kids (particularly kids of color and those with developmental or learning disabilities) into the school to prison pipeline. We don't want that.

Another tack, besides putting more cops in schools, is to beef up school surveillance. But that can have a similar effect. In the above news clip from Albuquerque, a police officer describes how new cameras in the public schools can help officers and the school administration. "They can catch kids doing something that maybe is unsafe, or is just against the rules." Perhaps those children who are monitored as they do something "against the rules" end up arrested, as happens to so many children in the US today.

That problem is what we call mission creep. Often we do things with great intentions and then only later realize that our actions have had totally unintended and undesirable consequences. We put the cameras in the schools to make sure that police would be able to see what's going on inside in the event of a mass shooting incident. And then the cameras end up getting used to police kids standing on tables in the cafeteria, or doing other silly but harmless things.

Then there's the larger issue, which speaks to our values and the character of our society.

What are we teaching our children when we start monitoring them with electronic surveillance equipment from a young age? What will they learn about their expectation of privacy when they have none in school, a supposed refuge for freedom of expression and thought? 

Studies have shown that cameras don't often stop crime. If they do have a noticeable effect on crime patterns it's usually that they just push it to places the cameras can't see. That means we'd need to put cameras everywhere in order for the deterrent to really work. Do we want to live in that kind of a world? And do we want our children to expect, from the earliest age, that someone is always watching?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.