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School washrooms no place for surveillance cameras

The Province (Canada)

Richmond School Board's decision last week to OK the use of video surveillance cameras anywhere in its schools, including washrooms, encountered disturbingly little opposition from local students and parents.

But school administrators have not produced any information or evidence -- in the way of criminal activity among the district's 23,000 students -- to warrant such invasive spying tactics.

Of the majority, only a few teens think it's cool to participate in graffiti, vandalism and bullying, and experience has shown these offences most often occur in the school yard or off the premises.

And while Richmond officials have every right to adopt measures to arrest misconduct and violence and promote safety, they also have a duty to respect the democratic right of every one of their students to privacy, especially in spaces used for intimacy.

It's not reason enough for school board chairwoman Annie McKitrick to defend the unanimous vote of trustees on a belief that, "I betcha they have cameras in the washrooms in the mall."

While the debate over video camera surveillance has been left to individual districts to resolve -- Langley and South Delta don't use them, Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows does -- most schools either mount them outside or install them inside for a limited time to address a particular issue.

For example, a camera was installed outside a washroom that was repeatedly being set on fire. Another school posted the surveillance outside after the principal's office windows were broken more than a dozen times.

But it's important to keep in mind that by far the majority of students in B.C. don't engage in such troublesome conduct. Most have never committed a crime nor intend to. To subject them to the intrusion of being watched as if they were potential criminals is inappropriate and uncalled for.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which denounces the use of taped surveillance except for a limited, problem-specific use, has stated that to justify such an invasion of privacy, the benefits must outweigh the impact on the privacy of those observed.

BCCLA notes the effectiveness of cameras in combatting misconduct and crime is iffy, at best.

A 2003 association report on their use stated: "Schools should not be in the business of teaching students that the proverbial Big Brother is watching them."

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