Weighing in on School Video Surveillance Policies

Sept. 18, 2007
A new document from a state school board association sets the parameters, but here's where to improve

A new "best practices" policy from the Arkansas School Boards Association suggests how to deal with video surveillance footage captured at the state's public schools.

Not surprisingly, the suggested policy (download it from the ASBA [MSWord document]), which was released earlier this summer, does not get into details of frame rate, or video resolution, or any technical specifics. Rather, the ASBA looks at such issues as how to transfer video footage to other schools, whether video surveillance clips should be attached to the student record, and how the campus should be notified that cameras are being used.

Some highlights include the fairly obvious suggestion that school boards retain surveillance "until the issue of the misconduct is no longer subject to review or appeal", and that "Parents of students 'inadvertently' caught in the video do not have the right to inspect then. Please note, however, that if a student was not 'involved' in the altercation prompting the disciplinary action, but happened to get pushed by one of the students in the fight, the pushed student's parents have the right to review the video."

The policy recommends that all requests have to be submitted within 45 days of the incident/recording, which implies that surveillance records should be archived for 45 days, which is less of a problem with today's newer, high-capacity DVRs and low-cost (DVD, CD, multi-gigabyte hard drives).

The document, says former Washington, D.C., schools security chief Pat Fiel, who now works with ADT on school security projects, is a great start, and something that many school boards should consider working up.

"It's a good document," said Fiel, who review many such documents in his role as an advisor with ADT. "It's good that they are putting together policies on security and video [surveillance], and it's critical to have the board (of education) review these policies like they have done."

Fiel, says, however, that there are a few things he would change to fit with modern ideas for using video surveillance. First, although the policy generally recommends saving video of incidents for 45 days, Fiel says it's quite possible to archive video of incidents for a year now without incurring much, if any, added expense thanks to hard drives or inexpensive CD burning technology.

The one year mark is a good minimum timeline because, says Fiel, civil suits can arise that may not be immediately known about by the school district or campus administrators. Additionally, says Fiel, schools should try to get a video surveillance recording system that can store all of the video (not just incidents) for two full months. "Then," he says, "if you have heard anything or if you have an incident report, save that particular segment of video [for a full year]."

Additionally, he suggests making sure that policy language reflects today's digital technologies, where video surveillance clips are no longer managed via tapes and VCRs, but are stored on servers or -- more commonly -- DVRs.

Additionally, while the Arkansas School Boards Association recommends that videos blur out faces of non-involved bystanders before releasing the video, Fiel says that while such blurring is courteous, it's far from necessary.

"As long as you put the cameras in public places - hallways, cafeterias, entrances - there's not an assumption of privacy," said Fiel, who noted that camera placement is often a school's security weakpoint.

Fiel agrees with the ASBA's clarification about the policy on who can see the video. "Generally, most make a policy that no one is guaranteed of seeing the video surveillance without a subpoena," but added that the interested parties, if the school is willing, can see the video at a scheduled time in the company of school administrators. However, says Fiel, copies of the video generally shouldn't be released without a subpoena or unless the school is working with police on an investigation.

Additionally, while the ASBA document seemingly recommends associating incident video with a student's record, Fiel says it needs to stay separate, and should only be attached to an incident report. "There's no reason to attach it to a student file," said Fiel, who notes it's not part of an investigation of a student, but rather an investigation of an incident.

What Fiel likes to see in K-12 video surveillance policies:
-- Signage alerting students/visitors/staff/educators
-- Policies set on who gets to see the video
-- Standardization on how long to save full video, how long to save incident videos
-- Policies considered by administrative and school board staff, not just security or local law enforcement
-- 2 months recording of all video
-- Minimum 1 year for retaining of incident video