It is an unfortunate reality that, in America, schools have to keep asking: How do we protect our students from a mass shooting? Absent any meaningful gun reform legislation from Congress, school administrators have turned to other tactics to promote safety. And while some of those measures seem reasonable, like active shooter drills or heightened security, they can have unintended and potentially dangerous consequences. Active shooter drills, for example, might lead to higher levels of depression and stress among students, and stricter security at schools often comes at the cost of encroaching on student privacy. (Some schools have been far too extreme, implementing protocols that are not, in fact, safe at all, like arming teachers.)
The question of how to keep students safe was at the center of a decision that the Springfield School Committee made in April to give police more access to school cameras. While the policy is intended for emergency situations like a mass shooting, the agreement between law enforcement and the school committee does not define what would qualify as an emergency. In fact, the police can access live or pre-recorded footage at any time, so long as it’s used for a “bona fide law enforcement purpose.” What constitutes a “bona fide law enforcement purpose” is for the police to decide.
Parents and privacy advocates have complained about the deal, and they’re right to be concerned. Students, particularly those who are Black and brown, are already overpoliced in many cases, and this agreement hardly has any safeguards against abuse. In this case, police effectively have unfettered access to school footage.
This is not to say that installing cameras in schools is always a bad idea, or that taking the threat of school shootings seriously isn’t warranted. But there are serious privacy and safety concerns when police can peek right into school facilities whenever they please, and Springfield and any other city considering real-time video surveillance in schools need to do more to ensure the technology cannot be abused, by setting out specific restrictions on its use.
The Springfield mayor, Domenic Sarno, who cast the tie-breaking vote to approve the deal, insists that the agreement is for worst-case scenarios. “This is for a catastrophic event,” the mayor said in an e-mail statement to the Globe editorial board. “Safeguard language has also been put in place in order to protect the integrity of the specifics of this policy agreement.” But when asked to expand on what guardrails are in place, the mayor’s office did not respond.
Actual safeguards for policies like this — like explicitly reserving the police’s real-time camera access for a school shooting — are critical because inviting law enforcement to observe student behavior could lead to bad outcomes. Police officers are typically not sufficiently trained to cater to student needs and they do not personally know students’ backgrounds like teachers do. That’s why some students with disabilities, for example, might be especially vulnerable, since they are already almost three times more likely to be arrested than students without disabilities. And students of color, who tend to attend schools that have more police officers in the first place, are also more likely to be arrested than their white peers, whether at school or elsewhere. Adding more touchpoints between police and students may only worsen these problems.
While it might seem that sacrificing some degree of privacy is worth the security of being more protected from a school shooting, the reality is that there’s no evidence that policies like these are even effective. And yet, states are going further and further in surveilling students, spending millions of dollars on programs that fortify schools only to give students, parents, and lawmakers a false sense of security.
If lawmakers are interested in keeping students safe, the resources they are using on surveillance programs would be better spent on fostering healthy educational environments by investing in programs like counseling and mental health services. At the federal level, Congress should muster the courage to act on gun reform. And when cameras are deemed necessary, schools must respect student privacy and do all that they can to install safeguards against abuse.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.