Proposals that would force teachers to wear bodycams are grabbing headlines as some activists push to install an unproven surveillance program in classrooms across the country. But any effort to place more cameras in schools not only raises massive child privacy and school safety concerns, but also presents risks to student learning at a time when kids are already struggling with major learning losses. Education experts agree that cameras in schools undermine academic achievement, and the privacy risks posed by recording kids are plain to see.
After more than a year of online school and hybrid classrooms, students across America are preparing to return to full-time, face-to-face instruction next month. Educators are faced with the monumental task of helping kids get back on track after the pandemic caused the largest education disruption in history.
Now more than ever, we need to foster trusting relationships and support academic freedom in schools so teachers can effectively support students. Students excel when they feel safe and supported, and they need to feel comfortable making mistakes and taking risks as part of the learning process.
Studies show that when a student sees a camera in school, they feel intimidated and unsafe. Many experts, including the National Association of School Psychologists, have confirmed cameras in schools can “corrode the education environment by, among other things, implicitly labeling students as untrustworthy,” and that has a chilling effect on students’ ability to concentrate and engage in the classroom. As one Florida State University professor put it, “Nobody will feel comfortable participating in class knowing that someone else may be making a permanent record of their words.”
Classroom surveillance also raises obvious red flags for children’s privacy and safety. Cameras in the classroom would create a permanent government-owned video record of every child’s entire time at school, and undoubtedly capture sensitive personal information. Children often share personal stories, experiences, and concerns throughout the course of the school day either with their peers or with teachers that they trust.
Looking back at old school photos and yearbooks can be embarrassing enough; can you imagine if your entire time in middle school was captured live on camera? Every mistake and awkward question or conversation could live on forever.
These privacy violations also present a number of safety concerns, starting with a new avenue for child predators to identify potential victims. In the worst possible scenario, these types of proposals would provide abusers with access to the information necessary to track students’ whereabouts, learn their mannerisms and habits, and glean personal information that could make it easier to prey upon students. Additionally, children may feel less likely to confide in their teachers about potential abuse or hardship if their conversations are recorded.
Let’s also not overlook the tremendous financial investment and administrative burden that these proposals call for. These proposals would require already cash-strapped school districts to spend money on new, expensive technology with no demonstrated benefit. Those calling for cameras have yet to establish that these proposals are beneficial, but we know there are clear, significant risks. And simply purchasing the technology is one step—districts would also have to build out the infrastructure to maintain, store, and process constant video feeds of every classroom in their district.
Of course, there are a handful of circumstances in which recording a lecture or allowing a limited classroom livestream could aid accessibility, training, or even community building. For example, a child who is undergoing lengthy medical treatments could find solace and support through a daily livestreamed lesson with his peers. A college student with a learning disability may benefit from the opportunity to re-watch a recording of her professor delivering a lecture. Educators may be required to record themselves teaching for national certification purposes.
But any of these acceptable instances are clearly limited in time, scope, and access. There is a well-defined purpose, and precautions would be taken, including obtaining parental consent when minors are involved, to ensure stringent privacy and security guardrails are in place.
Let’s face it: children have been through enough over the past 16 months. They’re ready to get off camera and into a real classroom. Let’s make sure that when students return to school, they’re greeted with a smile and a supportive learning environment – not Big Brother-style surveillance cameras recording their every action.