An Iowa School District Is Putting Body Cameras on Principals. Its Reasons Are Completely Wrong.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

In communities across the United States, the debate over whether to require police officers to wear body cameras has become familiar over the past year. Such a policy is coming to a town in southeastern Iowa, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the cops there. Starting this fall, the Burlington Community School District will arm school administrators with body cameras—but officials aren’t using the language of education to defend the changes. Instead they’re resorting to police and military analogies.

The policy was inspired by Mark Yeoman, a district principal who’d been wrongly accused of kicking a student. When he asked his higher-ups to institute the policy, he cited the example of police officers, arguing that patrol-car cameras protect officers and cut down on the number of complaints. Then Superintendent Pat Coen followed up with a similar analogy: He compared school administrators wearing body cameras to his own use of the device while on patrol in Afghanistan with the Iowa Army National Guard. In Afghanistan the cameras were primarily used for monitoring personal behavior and providing feedback on how to improve, according to Coen. He felt they could serve a similar function in his schools, where they will be worn by principals and assistant principals for all grade levels.

A growing number of cities—including Las Vegas, Houston, and New Orleans—have turned to body cameras as an answer to concerns over police violence. The cameras, they say, will improve the accountability of police officers and make citizens feel more comfortable.

But the workings of a school are very different from those of a military operation or police beat. And officials should stop comparing the two when debating, or defending, the use of body cameras. “To compare police body cameras and school body cameras is absurd,” says Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union and the primary author of the ACLU’s body camera model legislation, which provides municipalities with a readymade example of how police body cameras should be used so they both offer accountability and protect privacy.

The analogy fails to hold up for a few reasons. First, the primary mission of school administrators is to help educate children, not to preserve law and order. Education isn’t possible without trust and strong relationships, and it’s difficult to establish either if students have to worry about a camera staring them in the face.

Meetings between school administrators and students often require children to discuss intimate details in their lives—details that wouldn’t come up on a military operation or during a street frisk. Many students could be discouraged from broaching personal subjects if they know the conversation is being recorded. Younger students might not even have the wherewithal to ask the principal to stop taping.

 “It is very hard to see how [these cameras will] benefit positive relationships and confidential communications that take place in schools,” says Jeremy Rosen, the executive director of ACLU Iowa. He added that the presence of cameras suggests an “antagonistic” relationship between administrators and students that can hinder the development of trust from the outset.

Indeed, in the time I spent as a classroom teacher, I quickly learned that what appear to be clear-cut issues of student discipline can become personal very quickly. A student who acts up in class might have snapped because his unnoticed learning disability became overwhelming. A child who curses at a teacher because of a bad grade could actually be angry because he hasn’t eaten that day. What student wants to admit—on camera—that she can’t read, or that she’s being abused?

“[The district] will have to recognize that cameras will stifle those conversations,” says Khaliah Barnes, the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Student Privacy Project. “Parents and students would be hesitant to talk to a principal about very sensitive subject matter, for fear that the medical issue or the family issue they are discussing would be recorded and kept.”

But the district says it is writing its policies to accommodate the need for such conversations. Jeremy Tabor, the director of human resources for the school district, says that in order to preserve open and personal dialogue, the principals will be able to “use their professional judgment” and “turn the cameras off if the meeting takes a personal turn.”

The final details in Burlington are still being worked out. But Tabor said the district plans to allow principals to use the cameras somewhat at their own discretion. Principals might turn them on in the hallways, which are already monitored by surveillance cameras, or to record parent meetings. But the cameras are mostly intended for use in disciplinary meetings, when students could be alone with administrators.

Tabor says he’s confident the policies designed by the school board will protect student privacy while also giving administrators peace of mind. But, he says, the rules will shift throughout the first year as the district gets a sense of what’s working and isn’t working and gathers community input.

This flexibility underlines another key distinction between arming police and principals with cameras: The school administrators will likely have much more discretion over when the cameras are, and aren’t, in use. When police wear these cameras, there are consistent rules for when the cameras must be on. Officers do not get to decide on the spur of the moment.

The wide discretion concerns Rosen, who says allowing people wearing cameras to turn them on and off whenever they see fit would be “unacceptable” in a law enforcement context.

“Of course if someone is going to yell at a kid, they are going to turn the camera off,” he says. In other words: The flexibility of the district’s rules could undermine the very point of having cameras there in the first place.

Tabor disagrees. He says he is “confident” that when the rules are finalized, they will clarify expectations for what should, and should not, be recorded, and will standardize how principals should use the cameras across the district. If, he says, a principal seems to be flouting the intent of the program by recording only what puts her in a good light, she will be dealt with “as the district sees fit.”

Tabor says he hasn’t received any complaints from parents since the program was announced. He points out that students are accustomed to being recorded. Cameras have been used in the hallways and on school busses throughout the district for almost 10 years. No one has ever had a problem with those, he says.

The administrators’ videos will be treated much like school and bus surveillance videos, which are kept for a set amount of time and then deleted unless they are necessary for an investigation or an administrator decides they should be kept, Tabor says.

The ambiguity around how long and for what reasons the district will be keeping the videos concerns Rosen. He says all police videos are kept as long as possible regardless of content. In its model legislation, the ACLU recommends keeping all video for six months.

There’s one final reason the conversation about video cameras in schools should be divorced from the law enforcement context: The recent police initiatives are rooted in a desire to protect the public, whereas the school initiative is rooted in a desire to protect the officials in charge—adults who already wield considerable power over the young people in their care.

Children cannot control emotions as well as adults—at least emotionally mature adults. They are more likely to issue spurious threats, or say things they don’t mean. “You end up criminalizing or penalizing what are ordinary, silly, sometimes offensive behaviors, but within the range of what kids do in the course of the day,” says Jules Polonetsky, the executive director of Future of Privacy Forum, a D.C.-based think tank focused on responsible data use. “Taking what a kid says while they are angry or while they are being challenged or provoked and making that into anything but an ephemeral blowing off of steam creates a legal history that is overly intrusive.”

Children are among the most vulnerable members of our society, and as such deserve particularly considered treatment and protection. School officials in Burlington may genuinely believe they are serving the interests of students—but it’s clear these cameras are an imperfect idea. To the extent that Burlington is serious about instating them despite the warning signs, it should at least stop comparing them to police cameras.

“With the police, you have unarmed black men being murdered, says the ACLU’s Marlow. “In this case, the administrator is defending himself against an allegation that he kicked a student. It’s not even on the same planet.”