Imagine yourself in high school. You’re walking down a busy hallway. A student shoves you. The act is intentional. You can tell. You know they don’t like you. You shove them back. Soon you’re tussling on the ground. A teacher and the school resource officer (SRO) show up. They help break up the fight. The event lasts minutes, but the follow-out will last much longer. Video footage of you, captured by the camera worn by the SRO, becomes the property of the police. The video is stored in a server at the local police station. All sworn officers at the station can watch it. The resource officer can write a report to the local prosecutor, attaching the footage.
Such scenarios are becoming more and more likely in public schools. Body cams, first adopted to make police accountable and citizens safer, are now a threat to student privacy and safety.
Some of these dangers are the same ones posed by school policing: more officers in school lead to more youth arrests, criminal prosecutions, and even prison time. For immigrant students, the dangers are worse. Contact with police exposes all students to arrest and potential prison time—but prison time for immigrant youth could quickly lead to deportation.
Body cams in schools make this bad situation worse. Behavior that was once dealt with by school administrators might be compiled in one police computer. Footage of kids being kids will now be used to prosecute them as criminals.
There is already plenty of objection to making uniformed, armed police permanent fixtures in schools. Now, officials want to put cameras on the bodies of these officers – placing students under constant police surveillance and knitting schools, police, and prisons closer together.
Portland’s school board saw body cams for what they are: dystopian weapons billed as a safety measure. Other school districts should take note: the promised benefits are tentative at best, and the dangers could be grave.
The Portland board’s vote elevates student safety and privacy above the meritless promise of body cams. The board deserves praise. And so does Portland Police Chief Frank Clark, who has said he will honor the school board’s vote. Over the next eight months, the school board is slated to scrutinize the district’s relationship with school resource officers – and with body cams. We’ll be watching.