The Case against Cameras in Schools

More than half of American schools – and nearly all newly constructed school buildings – have installed surveillance cameras to monitor student behavior.  As the lone holdout in a district enamored of these systems, many were puzzled why I resisted their installation.  Wouldn't they make the school safer?  Wouldn't they assist in discipline?  Wouldn't students behave better if they knew they were being watched?

No, no and no. 

School Safety

Let’s assume first of all that a school does not have the resources to employ someone full time to monitor videos.  I am unaware of any school that does.  Video surveillance is therefore used to investigate problems after the fact.  Administrators flip through stored videos looking for evidence of wrongdoing.  If it’s found, the culprit is brought in, confronted and disciplined.  Columbine High School had video surveillance in 1999 and it did not prevent the tragedy.  The cameras are only an investigatory tool.  

So what is lost?  In a traditional investigation, an administrator would interview the suspected culprit, the victim and witnesses.  The number and type of interactions are important.  If the adult is dismissive of student testimony or shows disrespect for students interviewed, little of long-term value is gained.  But when the adult demonstrates respect and concern for those involved, the school becomes a safer place.  Short-cutting this process may save a few minutes today but may detract from safety in the long run.

View from a Surveillance Camera
Much more effective than an administrator tied to her computer, searching through videos for incidents, is that same administrator out in the school hallways, cafeteria and classrooms interacting normally with students and observing first hand not only misdeeds but more importantly, the precursors that could spell trouble:  a relationship souring, an angry student, emotions spilling over, loneliness.

School Climate

Researchers have identified the key factors in school climate and the three below are significant:
  • number and quality of interactions between adults and students
  • students’ and teachers’ perception of their school environment
  • feelings of trust and respect for students and teachers

Each of these is affected by surveillance cameras in schools.  Visible administrators and staff enhance school climate.  We need to talk with students – all students, not just those we like best.  The technological surrogate is destructive of a healthy school climate.   

I did some interesting research over the summer on “early leavers” (essentially dropouts) at the three high schools in our district.  Looking at multiple factors in each student’s history, I was surprised that few of our dropouts were among our most frequent discipline problems.  Those students – the ones the assistant principals spent so much time with dealing with misbehavior – tended to complete their diplomas.   I can only hypothesize that the quality and quantity of interaction with a key adult, albeit under not so terrific circumstances, was in fact a key to their success.   What will be the impact of videotapes on this effective system?  

(The key predictor of dropping out was poor attendance.  There can be many reasons for a student’s poor attendance, of course.  But perhaps school climate can play a part in a student’s willingness to attend regularly.)

Perhaps the best way to gain some perspective on surveillance of students is to turn the tables.  Few schools have surveillance cameras in classrooms and teachers object when they're suggested.  Teachers are offended by a lack of trust and respect for their work if administrators feel the need to spy on them.  And how would administrators like surveillance cameras in their offices, monitored by the superintendent?  

We cannot build trust and respect through video surveillance.  We erode trust instead.  Similarly, schools over the past 30 years have tried to be more inclusive, asking for and implementing student and parent input.  We want to prepare our students to be confident, capable adults.  This happens through visible trust, mature interactions with students and the perception that school is a place that is fair for everyone.

Students need to learn to self-monitor their behavior.  That must be cultivated while protecting students from bullying, drugs and other hazards.  But making all behavior adult-directed is counterproductive.  We need students to make good decisions on their own, when no one is watching.  Overly authoritarian schools may trigger rebellion but not self-efficacy.

Citizenship and Privacy

Becoming a responsible citizen is a key purpose of education in a democracy.  Respect for our national values and our Constitution should be built into everything we do in schools.  
The First Amendment values and protects freedom of expression.  Continuous surveillance in school creates an authoritarian, Big Brother climate in which the First Amendment is suppressed.    

The Fourth Amendment values privacy and protects against suspicionless search and seizure.  Though the courts would declare school hallways public venues not subject to the Fourth Amendment, it’s important we are communicating to students that WE value their privacy rights.  Particularly with this generation, education about privacy should be enhanced.   One oft expressed fear for this generation is their dismissal of privacy concerns, their casual sharing of their most sensitive information on Facebook and elsewhere.

Worst Case Scenario

At one school in our area, a principal used the cameras to embarrass students, calling out over the school intercom comments like “Michael, stop being squirrelly in the C Hallway” and “Where do you think you’re going, Jessica?”   This is unlikely to happen at most schools as public humiliation has gone the way of the spanking from the principal.  But it has happened in this community, to the detriment of students.


There is little if any credible research on the effectiveness of video surveillance in deterring crimes at school.  An interesting summary of the research from the University of Illinois can be found here.  The Electronic Privacy Information Center reports that effectiveness studies are virtually nonexistent and that the vendors of these systems prey on fears in the post-Columbine world.

My objection to cameras does not preclude their use in schools that truly are physically dangerous.  There are such schools, places where street violence spills over into school hallways.  In those schools, it may be the lesser evil.  But most schools installing surveillance systems are relatively safe places, or are when the administrators are visible.  The key to school safety is adult-student interactions.  Anything that undermines those interactions is detrimental to climate and safety.