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Boston Plan for Cameras and Microphones on School Buses Comes Under Fire

The Boston School District's plan to equip all of its 750 yellow buses with cameras and microphones in an effort to combat bullying and other disciplinary issues has come under heavy fire from The Boston Globe, which is asking the school district to reconsider the proposal.

In an editorial published Monday, the Globe called the proposal "an extreme initiative that unnecessarily infringes on private conversations"  and decried the possible audio surveillance on the buses as "bad public policy and a bad lesson for students."

The school district, according to the paper, has offered no evidence that incidents of bullying or other misbehaviors had elevated to the point where both audio and video surveillance were necessary on the buses.

The newspaper reserved its strongest language and ire for the part of the proposal related to the microphones.

"Video recordings are routine, and especially useful when it comes to identifying gross misconduct, like physical assault, on the part of bus riders," the editors wrote. "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."

The Globe wrote about the video and audio proposal  last week. According to that story the school district plans to install two cameras in the ceiling of each bus. One camera is expected to be directed toward the passengers, while the other will record the driver's perspective on the road.

In addition to aiding in investigating bullying and other disciplinary issues, the district told the paper that the video and audio recordings will also be useful in probing traffic accidents.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, the Washington-based advocacy group  for 67 of the nation's largest school districts, told the paper that school districts were increasingly turning to technology to ensure students' safety on school buses. 

Pennsylvania in February updated its wiretapping law, allowing school districts to record audio on school buses.  Since then, more school districts have made use of audio recordings on school buses, prompted by what school officials said was a high volume of incidents on the buses and hopes that the video and audio recordings will act as deterrents, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in June. 

The Boston proposal has received mixed reviews, even among civil rights groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union told the Globe that the cameras and microphones "created a culture of fear akin to being in a prison," while the Anti-Defamation League said that the cameras can be useful in investigating  bullying cases.

The Globe editorial indicated that Interim Superintendent John McDonough, who it said was a proponent of the use of video to combat bullying, is possibly reconsidering audio recordings. The paper encouraged him not to go forward with the plan.

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