Report: Student Surveillance Needs More Oversight

A recent report by the National Association of State Boards of Education finds that states and policymakers need to address privacy protections for school surveillance and its potentially negative, inequitable effects.

School Surveillance: The Consequences for Equity and Privacy” examines the issue of surveillance, identifying the benefits and potential problems posed by this growing phenomenon. The authors, NASBE legal fellow J. William Tucker and Amelia Vance, NASBE’s director of education data and technology, say the adoption and advancement of monitoring technologies — from surveillance cameras to internet and device monitors to biometric scanners — have made student surveillance widespread across the United States. For instance, by the 2013-14 school year, 75 percent of all K–12 schools in the country were using security cameras, the authors note.

The desire to keep students and staff safe is one of the top reasons schools use surveillance technologies. Other reasons include keeping students on task, auditing and efficiency.

One beneficial technology the authors point out is Blinkspot’s iris scanners for school buses. The company has developed a reader that scans students’ eyes and sounds an alert to indicate whether they got on the correct bus. The scanner also syncs with a mobile app that can update parents.

But the authors warn that surveillance can be obtrusive, abused and cause unintended consequences.

“Security measures can interfere with the trust and cooperation learning requires by creating barriers among students, teachers and officials and casting schools in a negative light in students’ eyes,” Tucker and Vance write.

As a result, students may feel less nurtured, more uncomfortable in their learning environment and more fearful of voicing their opinions in class.

“Despite the potential benefit of deterring bad behavior, surveillance in schools also poses a threat to intellectual privacy and encroaches on the space to voice opinions and challenge convention,” the authors say.

Also, research increasingly points to an “uneven landscape of school discipline in which students of color are disproportionately impacted by discipline actions,” Tucker and Vance state. The authors warn against the easy establishment of a “permanent record” against students via digital surveillance, and how that record can haunt students for the rest of their lives.

Despite introducing more than 400 bills on student data privacy since 2014, states have yet to address privacy protections from increasing surveillance in a serious, impactful way, the authors note.

The report recommends that state legislatures, policymakers and boards of education examine what kinds of surveillance are occurring in their schools and establish sensible policies that create “guardrails” on surveillance. The guardrails would ensure that surveillance methods are helping children rather than posing obstacles to their progress.

Some principles the authors recommend as valuable in the policymaking process are minimization, proportionality, transparency, openness, empowerment and equity. Training would also be an important component of instituting the policies.

The report places much of the policymaking responsibility at the feet of state boards of education, which in most states have rule-making authority. THE NASBE is a nonprofit organization representing America’s state and territorial boards of education.

To read the entire report on school surveillance, visit the NASBE’s website.


About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].