CCTV and security guards in schools: protective or invasive?

Do security cameras work to protect school kids? Flickr/Plashing vole, CC BY-SA

The Abbott government has announced 54 schools around Australia will receive funding for security guards and CCTV cameras in an attempt to prevent possible terrorist attacks.

Recently, in his national security address, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said his government would “never underestimate” the threat. He said his government would:

make the difficult decisions that must be taken to keep you and your family safe.

The funding for this surveillance in schools was released in conjunction with a concerted anti-terrorism effort that included the cancellation of welfare payments and revoking the passports of citizens assessed to be a threat.

When Justice Minister Michael Keenan made the announcement that certain schools would have these measure put in place, he said:

All our children have the right to be educated in a safe and secure setting.

What are the consequences of having these cameras in schools?

Research suggests that:

surveillance in schools can undermine privacy, erode trust, have a chilling effect on creativity and interaction, criminalise students and, in the most extreme cases, facilitate a direct and expedited channel from the school to prison.

The use of CCTV cameras in the UK is said to be for crime prevention, monitoring and controlling pupil behaviour. CCTV can be used in situations where blame and punishment need to be mediated. The security in one school is described as:

Having large internal windows [which] were used for senior teachers’ offices allowing them to overlook the corridors (or perhaps more importantly give the impression to pupils that they were potentially being observed in panopticon-esque fashion) […] There was also a ‘control office’ where the CCTV footage was recorded and could be viewed. The use of CCTV extended to the pupil’s toilets, the justification for which was to enable staff to ensure that groups of pupils were not hiding in the toilets, intimidating or bullying other pupils.

However, a study in the UK documented the tactics students devised to protect their privacy. These included avoiding monitored areas, altering their position and appearance to restrict CCTV identification, and repositioning the cameras.

Research into the impacts of surveillance suggests that cameras do not exacerbate levels of fear in a community, nor do students feel that having cameras in a school is evidence that the school is taking their security seriously.

Many American schools had CCTV cameras in place before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After the attacks additional surveillance policies were put in place to respond to the possibility that schools could be a terrorist target.

With recent attacks on schools in Nigeria and Pakistan, along with the recent events in Martin Place, Sydney, it is important to consider measures to keep schools and young people safe.

It is also important to note that there is no evidence that cameras keep schools safe. Some researchers in America suggest that the costs and contracts surrounding this surveillance warrant further investigation.

Protection versus privacy

At the very least it should be made clear that the footage and other data collected will not be used to invade the privacy of young people. How the data will be stored, who has access to it and how it will be used need to be stipulated.

This is particularly important given the plan involves 17 Jewish and 15 Islamic schools, groups that have historically been targeted for surveillance based on profiling.

These measures have purportedly been put in place to protect these groups, which may be necessary due to recent rises in prejudice against them.

Research into collection of young people’s personal data tells us:

Uninvited intrusion into their personal space or conflicting messages about their privacy rights are counterproductive […] They may yet have unintended consequences for children’s sense of personal integrity and for the kind of society that they will create in future.

International research suggests young people in the current generation have a mistrust of the state, little belief in democracy and cynical views about a broad-based “common good”.

Certainly in Australia, trust in government has had a sharp decline. Participation in democracy has also fallen.

It is therefore even more important to consider the wishes and rights of young people regarding surveillance and data collection in their schools. This needs to be considered before any impingement upon freedoms and liberties of citizens, particularly those who are still too young to have a political voice.

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