Video Surveillance in Public Schools: A Position of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association

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The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is one of the oldest and most active civil liberties associations in Canada. In business since 1962, the Association is run by a Board of Directors, a group of volunteers from various professional backgrounds, which seeks to protect and extend civil liberties throughout Canada. One of our major concerns is with the protection of privacy and freedom for British Columbians. For more information about the BCCLA, visit our website: or contact our office.

The BCCLA advocates for the protection of civil liberties. This paper is part of that role and it attempts to outline some of the concerns of the BCCLA associated with implementing video surveillance in public schools.

Before doing so, we would like to urge school boards to recall the central mission of our public schools. As any school board well understands, aside from providing basic skills and knowledge to students, public schools have a central role in teaching the values of our free and democratic society and preparing students to become fully engaged democratic citizens. Privacy is an important value in our society, as is the presumption of innocence (the vast majority of students will not engage in the behavior that gives rise to the call for video surveillance). Public schools must not only teach these values to students but strive to reflect all democratic values in their own practices that impact students. Indeed, public schools are arguably one of the only heterogeneous, liberal-democratic institutions left in society where young people can develop and debate concepts about personal identity, friendship and community. School boards and society at large must be on guard against taking away the open society of the academy and replacing it with the closed society of the reformatory. Video surveillance tends in the latter direction rather than the former.

As a final introductory note, the BCCLA is not opposed to any video surveillance at public schools. Where a compelling need can be established, and where the use of video surveillance is targeted to meet that need (and limited in duration), the BCCLA would not oppose the use of passive video surveillance after the times in which the exterior of the school property is normally used by the public. Nor would we opposed the use of video surveillance inside a school on the rare occasion that such surveillance is necessary as part of a criminal law enforcement investigation.

Video Surveillance – General Concerns

Various regional school boards propose to authorize the use of video surveillance equipment on school district property. The policies generally contemplate cameras inside and outside school buildings and on school buses. Cameras would be used where “necessary to enhance the safety” of persons on school property and to deter destructive acts. Cameras would be placed where the benefit outweighs the impact on the privacy of those observed.

Before moving to the substance of the BCCLA position, we urge school boards to adopt the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s suggestion that schools complete a Privacy Impact Assessment before implementing any video surveillance policy. Introduction of a video surveillance policy has profound implications for the privacy of students, staff and visitors and has the potential to shape students’ understanding of what it means to live in a free and democratic society.

As a preliminary matter, the question that must be asked is “why now?” Statistics demonstrate that crime is on the decline across Canada. The BCCLA is concerned that implementation of this technology, which carries significant consequences to privacy, is simply unnecessary. While the language of most draft policies requires necessity, the fact that a policy is being introduced foreshadows actual installation of cameras – are they truly needed? If the true aim is to deter vandalism, a policy can be shaped to specifically address that need. If the aim is to prevent violence, the empirical evidence surrounding video surveillance leads to questionable conclusions about its effectiveness; for example, there were video cameras in Columbine – but violence nevertheless resulted. This is because acts of violence are either unplanned or impulsive by persons who do not understand, or do not care, about the potential consequences of their actions. Accordingly, it is far from clear that cameras actually deter violent acts.

Another key question, unanswered by most policies, is the scope of use. Placement of cameras inside and outside of school property, and on buses, is a far-reaching commitment to constant surveillance of students – the vast majority of whom have done nothing wrong, will do nothing wrong, and do not deserve to be treated as potential criminals, or suspects. Policies restricted to usage only outside of normal school hours (which is surely sufficient to deter vandalism on school grounds) are not as troubling as the broader reach of various policies that have been implemented.

The BCCLA has several other areas of concern. The bullet list below identifies several, and recaps certain issues previously mentioned:

Need. School authorities must be able to identify clearly that there is a pressing and substantial problem that needs to be addressed. Actual empirical data will be essential to achieving this criterion. For example, real evidence of gang activity on school property, or significant criminal activity (e.g. arson) may justify the consideration of video surveillance as a means to address, in a targeted way, a substantial problem.
Effectiveness. The proposed use of video surveillance must clearly provide a solution to the problem that needs to be addressed. It is unclear, empirically, that cameras provide an effective solution to existing problems. Violent crimes are often unplanned and these will not be affected. Perpetrators also often have little regard for consequences; cameras will not deter these students from acting. Property crime may be deterred through video surveillance, but a policy that is targeted towards after school hours will be much more protective of student privacy yet provide both deterrence and investigative evidence if vandalism occurs. Finally, much of the behavior that cameras are intended to deter will not simply go away. Research suggests (1), instead, that the activity will simply be displaced to alternate, unwatched, locations. It seems unrealistic to believe that placing cameras in schools will eliminate (for example) student bullying. Instead, the behavior will occur in locations which are not monitored (either on or off school grounds).
Alternative Measures. School administrators need to consider whether other less intrusive means can be used to address the problem. For example, if there is a fear that criminal gangs are operating out of a school parking lot, greater human supervision may be used to keep tabs on suspected activity. Thus, the BCCLA believes that it will be more effective to increase human supervision when concerns about violence on school property arise. The use of real people to increase surveillance when there is justification also permits a measure of reciprocity: students may be observed but they can also observe those that observe them to adjust their behaviour and ensure that supervision is not inappropriate.
Cost. Though not primarily a civil liberties issues, the cost of surveillance technology, and its alternatives, is a practical concern to school boards. Often video surveillance is seen as a cheaper alternative to other options, such as additional personnel. The BCCLA wonders, though, whether a comprehensive study of the costs of this technology has been conducted. Cameras are not a one-time capital outlay. Instead, they require maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. Ancillary costs include impact on administration time (personnel must deal with storage of recordings, erasure, requests to view from students, parents and staff, privacy complaints, access to information requests under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act (the “Act”) and other related costs). Boards must also be aware of the potential that a student, staff member or parent could bring a legal challenge to the use of the equipment; either under the Act or under the Charter (2) . Finally, even if the technology costs a bit less than other alternatives, preservation of civil liberties and freedom sometimes has an economic cost but, in choosing freedom over perfect security, it is a cost that society has decided to accept.
Privacy. It is unquestionable that the cameras will view and record behavior that is perfectly acceptable. Moreover, the cameras will view and record student behavior that is, while not perfect, also not violent or destructive. Students will be recorded while talking to friends, holding hands with their romantic interests, and engaging in a wide variety of acceptable (but personal) behavior. Some students will also not engage in acceptable, and normal, behavior because it is being watched and recorded. These students lose something, and the BCCLA believes that they lose something important to their growth as individuals, and as citizens.
Psychological Impact. Without being melodramatic, there is something eerie about being watched by anonymous people, or cameras. There is something disconcerting about knowing that your activity is being monitored at all times. Being treated as a potential criminal, when you have done nothing to merit that treatment, impacts the psyche of any person. It is undisputed that the vast majority of students will not engage in the type of behavior that gives rise to the perceived need for video surveillance. Students, who are at important (and often turbulent) points in their development are particularly susceptible. Moreover, acclimatizing students to a system that devalues privacy and free choice – getting them used to being watched by authorities – negatively impacts their view of Canada as a free society. Schools should not be in the business of teaching students that the proverbial “Big Brother” is watching them.
Decision-Making. One key element of responsible citizens is their capacity to make uncoerced decisions. Students are presented with many choices during their school lives. Some choose to act inappropriately (and, hopefully, learn from their mistakes). The majority makes the right choices. But it is not simply making the right choice that is important. It is also morally relevant that people make the right choices for the right reasons – fear of being caught on tape is not a good reason to act correctly; the desire to act properly is. When cameras are watching, student decision-making will be affected by their presence. Some part of students’ decisions (however small or large) will be a result, not of a desire to act correctly, but instead by a desire to avoid being caught. The impact of cameras, thus, is to reduce students’ capacity for responsible decision-making.
Potential for Abuse. Even with safeguards in place, the technology can be abused. With real time surveillance, as contemplated by most policies, cameras can be used to monitor non-violent and non-destructive behavior (for example, tardiness). Cameras can also be used to inappropriately profile students – some may be the subject of increased surveillance because of ethnicity, appearance, past history or other discriminatory reasons. This is particularly true when schools contemplate real-time monitoring. Moreover, if the cameras are equipped with technology such as zoom, magnification and freeze frame, the technology itself may be subject to abuse (hacking into camera feeds, unauthorized viewing and the like). Finally, the technology itself may be subject to interception (in the case of wireless signals) by technologically savvy students or members of the public.
Real Time Monitoring. In general, the BCCLA is opposed to real time monitoring of students/staff from remote locations. Typically, real time video surveillance technology permits a much more intrusive nature of surveillance, more intrusive than simply being watched from afar because cameras have the power to zoom in close and pan wide angles. Thus, this type of monitoring can “see” more and take in more at one time than the naked human eye. The best analogy is that real time monitoring can be like someone standing over your shoulder observing all that the subject can observe (3). The only conceivable exception to our opposition might be where there is an exceptional need for real time monitoring in relation to an investigation into a serious criminal matter. Even in this exceptional circumstance, no staff or member of the school community should be permitted to monitor students given that such monitoring would most likely be undertaken in secret and given that such monitoring will permit the viewer to see more than anyone naturally observing would be able to observe, including behaviour that is relatively private.

The concerns listed above are real and substantial. The BCCLA believes that the demonstrable negatives associated with video surveillance outweigh the potential benefits. In some instances, limited use of cameras is acceptable (for example, outside of normal school hours) as is targeted, problem-specific use. For example, where a school has been the subject of repeated thefts from a computer lab, installation of a camera in that lab may be an appropriate response. General monitoring of student behavior, however, is an unacceptable intrusion into their private lives.

Video Surveillance Draft Policies – Specific Concerns

With the foregoing in mind, the BCCLA has concerns specific to many draft policies (these comments are based, in part, on the draft policy of the BC School Trustee’s Association, dated February 16, 2001, which appears to be the framework for individual school board policies, such as recent policies introduced in Richmond and West Vancouver):

Authorizing Body

The introduction of a single video surveillance camera in any school or school bus is a decision with profound implications for the privacy of students and others. We therefore recommend that Boards themselves make the decision to install video cameras in specific locations, rather than delegating the decision to superintendents or principals. In our view, the occasions that would warrant video surveillance would be so few that this would not be a major intrusion on board time; and the decision to use this invasive method of surveillance should be taken by school trustees who are accountable directly to the public.


There must be ample notification of the presence of video cameras in all cases. The BCCLA would have very serious concerns with the use of covert surveillance by school boards. Moreover, boards, not superintendents, should authorize covert use.

School Buses

The BCCLA is not convinced that there are no reasonably effective alternatives to video surveillance in school buses. It may seem that the dangers posed by unruly children on a moving vehicle and the fact that the only adult present needs his or her undivided attention to drive the vehicle would justify the addition of a video camera. But such is not the case. If a district has children so unruly that they cannot be monitored and kept under reasonable control by the bus driver, the school should hire a conductor to supervise the students. Such a person could break up a fight once it starts, which a video camera cannot do. One camera cannot pan over every student in a bus, given that students can crouch below the backs of seats, but a person can walk down the aisle to see what is happening.

It might be argued that video surveillance on every bus in a district would be cheaper, after a few months of operation to pay off capital costs, than a conductor on every bus on every trip. Of course this is true, but both options are excessive. If the problems on buses were so severe as to make the suggestion of installing video cameras on buses worth debate in the first place, then school boards would have to consider a wide range of other measures, such as enforcing discipline more rigorously against students caught fighting on buses, more education programs to dissuade students from certain behaviours, etc. If there are isolated incidents of violence on particular routes, then our suggestion of a conductor hired part-time is probably a better solution.

Washrooms/Private Conference or Meeting Rooms

The BCCLA would have very serious concerns if cameras were used in washrooms or other environments of an intimate nature (change rooms, counseling rooms). The BCCLA suggests that there will always be other options available in those environments, such as supervisors or ensuring that there are always two persons present.

Security, Viewing of Recordings and Retention of Videotapes

With the concerns identified in “General Concerns” above in mind, most draft policies adequately safeguard privacy in these areas. The BCCLA is concerned, however, that providing parents with unfettered access to recordings of their children (who may not have engaged in any destructive or violent behavior) is an inappropriate intrusion into student privacy. The potential for abuse of the system is large; parents may use the school surveillance to simply monitor behavior that, while perfectly legal, the individual parent may believe inappropriate. The school will then become the spy for the parent – the student will lose his or her individuality and freedom: extremely important aspects of human development that should be fostered, not restricted, in an educational environment.

In sum, the BCCLA has grave concerns with video surveillance. Continuous, suspicionless, monitoring of student behavior is inimical to freedom, privacy and the hallmarks of a democratic society.

1 Please refer the BCCLA’s 1999 position paper on public video surveillance available on our website at:
2 The BCCLA wants to emphasize that this is not to be construed as suggesting that it plans to bring such a challenge, though it reserves the right to do so.
3 For more commentary on the intrusiveness of real time video surveillance monitoring, see a speech by George Radwanski, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada at: