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editorial

Boston schools go too far with audio surveillance of school buses

A new video camera system is installed above the drivers seat in a Boston school bus.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

A new video camera system is installed above the drivers seat in a Boston school bus.

Boston’s school department has offered no evidence that incidents of bullying or other misbehavior have increased to the point where both audio and video surveillance of students on their way to and from school are required. Yet the school system is in the process of equipping its 750 yellow school buses with both microphones and cameras. It’s an extreme initiative that unnecessarily infringes on private conversations.

Video recordings are routine, and especially useful when it comes to identifying gross misconduct, like physical assault, on the part of bus riders. But audio recordings are different in tone and tenor. And the city’s policy fails to make that distinction. It is not even clear how audio surveillance will keep students safer. It may even have a deleterious effect, according to defenders of civil liberties.

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“We’re indoctrinating children to believe that everything they say and do will be recorded by some faceless entity behind glass,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts law prohibits surreptitious audio recordings. The school department likely can remain within the law by posting signs on school buses informing passengers that they are under both video and audio surveillance. But that doesn’t make it right. Recording every word out of a student’s mouth still raises serious privacy concerns.

If anything, Bostonians might expect serious incidents of misbehavior to decrease in the coming years as the school department phases out yellow school bus service for middle school students. Seventh- and eighth-graders will be issued MBTA passes instead. And the T does not incorporate audio recording into its surveillance system due to “privacy concerns,” according to spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

At minimum, the public should have been given opportunities to weigh in on this significant change in policy. Yet even City Councilor Tito Jackson, who chairs the council’s education committee, said he was caught unawares by the decision. Jackson also expressed deep reservations about the usefulness and accuracy of voice recordings on a noisy school bus.

Interim school superintendent John McDonough may be having second thoughts. He is firmly behind the use of video cameras on school buses as a method to prevent or document bullying. But he now says that he wants “to better assess the impact of the audio portion before we flip the switch.”

He shouldn’t flip it. Pervasive audio surveillance on school buses is both bad public policy and a bad lesson for students.

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