Burlington Community School District in Burlington, Iowa may be the first school district in the nation to ensure that all of its 13 administrators, principals and associate principals, wear body cameras.
In a meeting with school administrators, District Superintendent Pat Cohen said cameras would protect not only students, but administrators. A district administrator was falsely accused of kicking a student recently. The American Civil Liberties Union is not pleased with the approach, and said the new policy’s aim is simply to protect administrators from legal troubles.
“I wonder if they view their students not so much as students but as overly litigious plaintiffs or potential criminals for whom they have to establish video evidence in case they are falsely accused of misconduct or a crime is committed,” said Chad Marlow, the ACLU’s advocacy and policy counsel in a statement to ThinkProgress. “How are schools supposed to be developing our Nation’s next generation of leaders when they treat their students like prison inmates?”
Administrators have compared the need for body cameras in schools to the need for body cameras on police officers — accountability. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, similar legislation has been offered in 30 states, making the use of body cameras in school a national issue.
But as with police officers, the argument against body cameras for administrators is that the administrators still hold the power since they hold the camera. According to The Des Moines Register’s interview with William Brackett, Burlington’s supervisor of technology, administrators would have the responsibility of maintaining the recordings and by uploading them at the end of the day and then would review them “when questions arise.”
Another argument against using body cameras in schools is simply that it furthers the idea that students should be treated like suspects and that administrators are not fostering trust with students by wearing them. Concerns about which students will receive school discipline and the rise of more school safety officers in schools has amped up the debate on body cameras. There is substantial evidence that teachers tend to discipline students of color more often and more harshly than their white counterparts. LGBT students were more likely to be suspended and students with disabilities are also more likely to be disciplined more. Black students are expelled at three times the rate of white students, according to a report by released by the U.S. Department of Education last year, and there have been plenty of examples of children of color, especially black children, being arrested for minor incidents, including throwing Skittles on the school bus.
For examples of how arresting students can get out of control, look no further than Maplewood High School in Nashville, where 143 arrests happened at the beginning of the 2014–15 school year. Out of those arrests, 50 juveniles were handcuffed and escorted from the school and 70 juveniles were issued citations. The Tennessee Department of Education’s records show that in 2012, black students made up for 370 of suspensions and 21 of expulsions out of 466 total suspensions and 29 total expulsions at the high school. At South Bend, Indiana schools, where black students compose 34 percent of enrollment, black students received more than seven out of 10 citations issued during the past few school years.
Overdiscipline of students can have major effects on students’ lives. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said police data show there is a “correlation between the increase and proliferation of police forces in these school districts and the dropout rate,” in an interview with TWC News. As much as 178 school districts in Texas have their own police forces, according to a 2011 ACLU report.
In addition, disciplinary records are often considered in college admissions, according to a new survey by The Center for Community Alternatives, which shows that 46 percent of colleges gather information on disciplinary records on their individual application materials and 27 percent collect that information from Common Applications. Only 27 percent of the 408 colleges and universities that responded did not use that information.
Although the school intends to set rules around how the footage will be used, that may be little comfort to education advocates who are worried that it is part of a 15-year trend of increasing police presence in schools and instituting zero tolerance policies that disadvantage students of color, LGBT students and students with disabilities. In 1999, in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, the U.S. Department of Justice began the “COPS in Schools” grant program, and the number of school resource officers (SROs) increased. From 1997 to 2003, the number of SROs rose 52.1 percent. Since then, budget constraints the number of such officers have fallen slightly.
If the concern is that more eyes on students, and more recorded evidence of student behavior, will reduce crime and protect students, studies say the effect is negligible and the likelihood of disrupting learning is far higher. The rate of self-reported school-based offenses, including violence and theft, has fallen in recent years, even before the DOJ program began in 1999. Total school-based crimes have been falling since 1993. A 2008 Rutgers University dissertation by Lynette Barnes, Ph.D., on the effect of SROs on North Carolina schools showed that the schools with SROs did not did experience significantly different reported mean crime rates after implementation of the programs.
This piece has been updated to include a statement from Chad Marlow, the ACLU’s advocacy and policy counsel.