School surveillance cameras should never monitor student change rooms or washrooms. Videotapes that are not part of an investigation should be erased after 30 days. And schools should not use hidden cameras.
Those were some of the guidelines released yesterday by Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner, who said that the province's school boards must ensure that such surveillance is conducted under strict controls.
"The use of video surveillance cameras is becoming much more widespread," Ann Cavoukian said yesterday. Roughly 80 per cent of Ontario's school boards say they have surveillance cameras mounted in schools, she said.
Nervous about vandalism, many schools across the country are installing cameras in hallways, parking lots and cafeterias to encourage discipline and track down troublemakers. But civil libertarians have expressed dismay, saying that such spy technology is an invasion of privacy and makes students feel like criminals.
They fear that these devices, meant to act as deterrents, will be introduced into the classroom. In Biloxi, Miss., for example, digital cameras are being hung not only in corridors and other common areas, but also in classrooms.
Ms. Cavoukian disapproves of cameras monitoring areas where staff and students have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Still, she said that schools are considered to be a supervised environment where students can expect some degree of monitoring.
Schools need to draft formal policies governing the use of surveillance cameras, Ms. Cavoukian recommended yesterday. That would allow parents, students and teachers to understand the purpose of using the cameras.
Ms. Cavoukian recalls receiving a complaint from a caretaker who believed the cameras in the school hallways were being used to monitor him. This could have been avoided with an open and transparent policy, she said.
"Video surveillance can be an effective security tool. But privacy is an essential right that must also be addressed," she said.
"There are a number of very important questions that have to be answered. What areas are being filmed and for what reason? Who is authorized to look at these tapes? How long are they retained? Can individuals captured on these tapes get access to the tapes?"
Some of the other guidelines delivered to school boards include:
Installation of video cameras in identified areas of schools where it is deemed necessary;
Notification of students and staff about the video surveillance program through clearly worded signs;
Maintaining strict controls to ensure the security and the integrity of the recorded images