Keep Body Cameras Off Public-School Educators

An Iowa school district is among the first in the nation to outfit its principals with the devices.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Throughout the United States, police officers are beginning to wear body cameras. Should principals in America’s public-school systems follow their example?

The stakes are high.

Americans who spend their childhoods in schools where all interactions are recorded for review are likely to regard constant surveillance outside the home as normal.

Alas, the country may be seeing the beginning of that trend.

A school district in southeastern Iowa “is thought to be among the first in the nation to outfit administrators at each of the district's eight school buildings with a body camera,” the Des Moines Register reports. “The district spent about $1,100 to purchase 13 cameras at about $85 each. They record with a date and time stamp, can be clipped onto ties or lanyards, and can be turned on and off as needed.”

For now, they won’t be used to record all interactions with adults––only school administrators will use them, and probably not all the time. But once in place, there could be a temptation to record everything just in case something happens. The Superintendent Pat Coen told the newspaper that he saw the value in wearable recording devices while deployed in Afghanistan with the Iowa Army National Guard, while another administrator in the school district first urged use of the technology:

Principal Mark Yeoman of Aldo Leopold Middle School said he was wrongly accused of kicking a student. A parent had complained about the Burlington school leader's behavior after he used de-escalation strategies to try to calm down a student. The incident was caught on a school camera, which Yeoman said he reviewed and later showed to the parent.

"They didn't have to take my word over the child's word. They were able to see it," Yeomen said.

After talking with the school's resource officer about how patrol car cameras—and now, body cameras—can help protect officers and cut down on the number of complaints, Yeoman approached Coen about making a purchase.

Note that stark contrast: For U.S. soldiers who are in Afghanistan, as well as American police officers, body cameras guard against misconduct or errors that regularly have deadly consequences. The stakes of improving outcomes could not be higher and the case that the benefits of body cameras outweigh the costs is easily made.

Yet here, a veteran of Afghanistan and a school police officer recommended body cameras when the stakes involve ... a principal wrongly accused of kicking a student. If that’s the country’s new threshold for the benefits of intrusive surveillance outweighing the costs it may as well dispense with half-measures and adopt 1984-level scrutiny.

The commenter David J. Gudenkauf has a different view.

"I think this is an excellent idea for education systems," he writes. "It will show the problems of classroom activities outside of the classroom for many to evaluate, including parents and the community. It is time that this internal discussion be shown externally and with transparency ... the goal of education is to teach children with the whole community assisting not just throwing money at the problem."

Says Mark Challis, another commenter at the Des Moines Register who favors broader surveillance: "Cameras should be running in all classrooms. Then when Mommy and Daddy claim little Johnny or Susie isn't misbehaving, the tapes can roll. Parents not backing teachers is a large part of the discipline problems at schools."

These responses illustrate the seductive power of mass surveillance: Before it is adopted, many succumb to the illusion that transparency can solve previously intractable problems. That belief is seldom vindicated. It may be that a school with an unusually severe bullying problem, for example, or rival gangs that are routinely having violent conflicts in the halls might benefit, overall, from transparency. (Though technology in the hands of incompetent administrators is likely to be used incompetently.)

It seems that most American schools, however, lack the levels of danger and crime that would justify relying on body cameras. And the effect of transparency in their hallways and classrooms could more likely divide than unite the communities they serve. Helicopter parents would perhaps constantly second-guess every perceived slight to their children. Administrators and teachers could cease behaving like normal humans and alter their behavior to minimize their chance of being criticized. Students could even cease having normal relationships with teachers and administrators. Maybe adolescents would find humiliations and trivial misbehavior recorded.

In all sorts of ways, the costs of surveillance would probably outweigh the benefits. And that’s why the seemingly inexorable creep of this technology should be resisted—not accepted.