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Hidden cameras don’t belong in schools

It’s not uncommon for the rest of the state to look at Madison and react by wondering, “What were they thinking?” But the reaction is usually prompted by the antics of state government, not a school district putting hidden cameras in a high school locker room.

The account from The Wisconsin State Journal beggars belief. School security staff found the camera setups in a coach’s office in the locker room. One was pointed toward an area in which disabled students change. Dumbfoundingly, they were authorized by the district, part of an effort to catch an employee who was believed to be sleeping on the job.

A police report on the matter indicated the cameras had been removed in June 2020, and that what security found this past January was a hollowed-out smoke detector that had previously housed one of the cameras.

Whether the cameras were in compliance with the Madison school district’s own policies can be questioned. Reports say the district allowed hidden cameras in areas where there was not an expectation of privacy, prohibiting locations such as bathrooms and locker rooms. Hidden cameras could be authorized by the district’s superintendent. While the district might want to take refuge in the fact that the cameras were in the office rather than the locker room itself, we doubt that’s of comfort to anyone who might have been in the camera’s view.

Given that the district knew in January that the cameras had been found, that parents were notified in the same month, and that it had enough time to commission and receive a $30,000 outside report on the debacle, it’s fair to question why it took nine months for the district to conclude that maybe, just maybe, it needed to change its policies. It’s also troubling that the cameras were apparently in use after a former Madison teacher was caught in 2019 planting hidden cameras in students’ hotel rooms during field trips.

The lesson for other Wisconsin school districts is clear. If your policies currently allow for the use of hidden cameras, it would be wise to rethink them now. Explicitly prohibiting the practice is not a bad idea. While there are good arguments for using security cameras inside schools, the use of hidden cameras is an invitation to lawsuits. It is a practice that invites abuse specifically because of the surreptitious nature of the cameras.

The Madison school district’s use of hidden cameras in such a sensitive location was a mind-bogglingly bad decision. The district’s own policies reflect the fact students have a reasonable expectation of privacy in locker rooms. And, as multiple court rulings attest, students never shed their fundamental rights at the schoolhouse door. Does the district have an interest in catching a malingering employee? Of course, and it’s an interest shared by the taxpayers who fund the employee’s wages. Is it reasonable to do so at the cost of students’ privacy and security? No.

Cameras in hallways and other spaces open to students and teachers make sense in many cases. Arguments in favor of such cameras for security purposes and the ability to monitor events within school walls are difficult to refute. People may well bemoan the need for such steps, but the necessity is real. And their presence in a space that is open to all is akin to the increasingly widespread use of cameras in doorbells.

Discomfort with such observation in public spaces is often more pronounced among students’ parents than the students themselves. There’s a level of familiarity among younger people with the idea of routinely being on camera, a familiarity engendered in part by the proliferation of social media and the ready access to smartphones with high-quality cameras. Those tools simply weren’t available to earlier generations, as their parallel unease with them reveals.

But nothing can justify what the Madison district did. It was nothing less than a breach of trust and responsibility. The recent move to ban hidden cameras is most likely too little, too late to stave off the legal repercussions.

Districts in the rest of Wisconsin, including in the Chippewa Valley, should take note. Let Madison’s mistakes be your warning.

– Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

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