Posted by: Heather Forbes | May 5, 2010

Are surveillance cameras coming to your neighbourhood school?

Last Thursday, the BC Legislature introduced Bill 20, which amends the School Act to set out in law that school boards to install surveillance cameras in schools for the “purposes of protecting the safety of individuals, their belongings or school property”.

In my high school there was one surveillance camera, pointed right in front of the main bay of vending machines. It was clear to all the students that its chief function was to deter theft and vandalism rather than protect student safety. I soon discovered a not-so-secret fact: that camera wasn’t even hooked up.

So what do I think about this amendment? I think that, like the camera in my high school, it won’t figure too highly in the minds of students, nor will it change their behaviour too drastically. What I am worried about is how it figures in the minds of decision-makers. The very wording of the Bill positions cameras as a viable tool for ensuring the safety of people and property, but there is very little evidence that cameras have a significant impact on either preventing or solving crimes. But if a school board develops some misplaced faith in cameras, as has happened often enough in the past, then they could be introduced to space, to the cultural and financial detriment of the school. What if misplaced faith in the efficacy of cameras gives them a misplaced priority in school board budgets, displacing staff (such as grounds monitors, who might be a more effective way to ensure safety), or public safety educational programs? By positioning cameras as viable tools for ensuring safety, this Bill further entrenches that possibility.

The public has yet to see any independent evidence that surveillance cameras in schools increase safety and deter violence or crime, just as it has yet to see any evidence that they result in improved safety or reduced crime in downtown areas or on transit. The government and school boards should be extremely hesitant to use surveillance cameras – a highly invasive tool – in school environments. They ought to be installed only when there is a clear, evidence-based justification for doing so, and only as a last resort when all other reasonable methods of improving safety have been tried and failed. And while the amendment sets out that cameras can only be used for certain general purposes described above, that restriction is not clear enough.

Surveillance cameras are susceptible to over-use and abuse by authorities – as has been shown in some British studies – including unfair profiling of certain groups of people on racial grounds. In order to curtail such abuse as much as possible, and to create clear accountability, in the last-resort situation in which cameras are deployed, there must also be stringent rules in place to establish how they can be used, who can view the images, how the data is stored, and where they can be placed.

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