Thursday, June 14, 2007

An Eye on School Safety

I am no fan of the rapidly rising rate of the use of closed circuit television cameras (CCTV cams) in public places for surveillance purposes. I agree with the ACLU that they are intrusive and don't generally accomplish what we are told that they will. I think that they contribute to the formation of a "nanny state" where those in power can abuse information gleaned from them. Not that I personally do any dastardly deeds in public, but I just don't want to be watched whenever I am walking around in public.

Great Britain has been a leader in installing CCTV cams in public places. Although still a bit controversial, for the most part citizens across the pond in the UK have embraced the concept of having public spaces actively surveilled by cameras.

Here in the US, what once was the province of only a few places (such as at bank teller stations) has now mushroomed not only in private establishments, but also in public places. This is probably due to many factors. One, certainly, is the decreasing cost of such video equipment. For about $500, one can get a camera and software to record fairly good quality video on your computer while you're away. Another reason is increased public uneasiness following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Video surveillance is sold to the public as a preventive measure against such attacks occurring again. Yet another reason is the role that video surveillance cameras have played in assisting in solving crime. Although there is not good data to back it up, there are an increasing number of abducted or attacked teens (and others) where video turns up on the news shows within 24 hours. Whether or not the video helps solve the crime, a voyeuristic public wants to see those same frames of video over and over and over again.

But there's another side of video cameras that's not altogether bad at all. The Rodney King case in California would not have gotten the press it did without the compelling video of King being beaten in the streets by the LA police. The rise of cameras being integrated into cell phones has also allowed us an insight into events that we might not have had otherwise. Michael Richards' outrageous tirade at a comedy club might have been a story buried in the paper for one day, but for the video that was caught on a cell phone which allowed Richards to hang himself with his own words.

Closer to the theme of this post, cell phone videos have shown teachers behaving badly, when they didn't know they were being recorded.

But what does any of this have to do with schools (and special ed classrooms in particular)? A lot, I think. I am sure that I in the minority opinion (especially if one surveyed teachers), but I think it would be an excellent idea to install passive video surveillance in all school classrooms and other areas where students gathered ("quiet rooms", resource rooms, gymnasiums, playgrounds, lunchrooms, etc.). By passive video surveillance, I mean that the video would be continuously recorded onto tape or hard drive, and be available for retrieval for a fixed period of time (say, 60-90 days). After that time it would be erased. Now, like the ACLU, I believe that such recordings open up the possibility for abuse, so I would have strict rules for how they could be used.

First of all, no one would view the tapes unless there was an "incident" that had occurred. Anytime any student got "written up" for a disciplinary infraction, or anytime anyone (police, parents, students, teachers) made any allegations of possible wrongdoings, a neutral investigator would be appointed (someone outside of the school) and all of the recorded material from that school for the day in question would be stored until the incident could be settled. The recordings would be availabe for all interested parties to watch. It would be the law that this was legal (so that the schools couldn't hide behind some false claim of privacy of other students).

Why do I think this is a good idea? Well, read Kristina Chew's blog entry from today, where 4 educators in a New York school are being charged with multiple cases of abusing disabled children. In a different context, Amanda Baggs has described what it's like to be institutionalized in what is considered a "good" situation.

Having such a system in place (passive surveillance kept confidential unless there was a dispute) would serve a number of different purposes. First of all, it would go a long way towards levelling the playing field in what is always a very unequal power relationship. School teachers and administrators wield a considerable amount of control and power over their students, and having a neutral observer in the classroom would be essential in many cases of showing what really occurred in a given situation. Secondly, when there is a pattern of neglect and not addressing educational goals that have been laid out and agreed to (in an IEP), video can be reviewed to see if this is actually the case or not.

Many (especially teachers) will recoil at this suggestion. But it's not as if this would be the first place where recordings of events when someone was working would take place. As I stated, in businesses all over, the employees as well as the customers are under surveillance. Police officers have become accustomed to having video cameras in their cars recording routine (and non-routine) traffic stops and car chases. Many officers have been glad to have these recordings to back their side of the story up when they have been accused. Emergency rooms have had such surveillance, and so have some operating rooms (theatres). There would certainly be a psychological period of adjustment on the part of teachers, but with the safeguards I have included, I do not think that this would be too great.

And we might just be able to weed out several bad apples in the process.


kristina said...

I'm sure someone will be thinking on reading this "big brother is watching"...... it is such a constant worry though as the parents of a special ed child, with limited language skills. (And reading reports of daycare providers who abused their charges does not help.) How much trust we have to marshall to "drop off" and "send" our children to classrooms in which we can't really know all that went on........ And a district allowing occasional videotaping would not be a solution: It's in the course of everyday occurrences that things happen, and that is what we need to know.

Niksmom said...

I completely agree! Having been at my son's school during non-drop-off/pick-up times, I have peeked through the classroom window and seen the things which were NOT happening (that should have been). Lately, Nik's been a little funny about certain things after he comes home from school. It is so hard to keep my mind from putting the worst possible construct on it so I have to stay focused on collecting my own data and developing the positive relatinships with school personnel which allows me to come and go and spend more "face time" at school.

Philip. said...

You are certainly correct in saying that those of us here in the UK are the most watched people in the world!

Mom without a manual said...

I hear you and see both sides of the debate.

Awhile back I posted about a technology called BI Capture. It was awesome and ideal for capturing the behavioral issues our children experience. It was more like Tivo in the classroom rather than a continous feed.

This system would allow a behavioral specialist (in the school system or from outside) to analyze the outbursts in class. On the positive side, this might show something the teacher did to cause the outburst. But if the teacher knew they were culpable they probably wouldn't be flagging that outburst to have it evaluated by the BI capture system!

There have been times I've dreamed about installing a nanny cam on my son so that I can see what happens when I'm not around!

Somehow we need a system of checks and balances!

Daisy said...

My school has several surveillance cameras. We have used them to advantage when catching vandals or petty thieves, for example. The downside in our case in one you might not think of. Our principal no longer thinks she has to come out of her office. She just watches the TVs from the cameras. As kids might say, Duh. If the principal is out and about in the halls, her presence can make a difference in student behavior and school climate.
Yes, I'm going to a different school next year.

Club 166 said...

I can certainly see where a proposal such as this would be controversial. Doctors and hospital administrators go back and forth over whether to have cameras in places like the Emergency Department.

But I think that when there are so many potentially life changing decisions based on the subjective opinions of individual teachers in classrooms, that there do, indeed, need to be "checks and balances".

I think if the system is set up correctly (i.e, not for routine surveillance-unless teacher and parents agree), it can be used much like the video camera review is used in American football, where the referees view the play under dispute and render a judgment.

Whenever a "critical incident" occurred, all interested parties could view all pertinent footage before making any determinations of whether any discipline, remediation, or other specific interventions were required.

Ang said...

As the mother of an autistic son, I wholeheartedly agree with your idea. While my son is verbal, there are many, MANY holes in his day which I will never know about. From the trivial "what did you have at lunch?" to the more important "how did you get that bruise on your leg?"

My husband works at a casino, so is used to being under surveillance constantly. Yes, that surveillance is there to keep him and his co-workers honest about the money on the property -- but it also protects him as well. And I think our children will be protected (and the school administration, too, in some circumstances) if cameras were allowed in.

Thanks for giving me something to think about!

Club 166 said...

Actually, Ange, casinos are one venue that I also thought of (though failed to mention) when I was writing this.

I guess in my world of using the video I would not permit anyone (teachers, administration, or parents) to routinely view it unless all parties gave permission to do so. The primary purpose would be to settle disputes (in disciplinary or potential abuse matters), while a secondary use could be selected days recordings being used for "unobtrusive observations". I would envision 2-3 days/month recordings being used for such purposes. Teachers, parents, and their representatives would have access to these tapes to review a student's progress, look for opportunities (and missed opportunities) for support, and assistance in setting and clarifying IEP goals.


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