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Iowa District's Plan for Principals to Wear Cameras Draws Scrutiny

An Iowa school district that made news this week for a new policy that allows principals to wear body cameras in schools is saying that the cameras are intended to be used in some private meetings with parents and students—not on principals roaming the hallways or school grounds—and that parents and students will have the opportunity to opt out of being recorded.

The Des Moines Register first reported on Sunday that the Burlington Community School District in the southeastern part of the state planned to outfit its 13 principals and associate principals with small, clip-on video cameras when the school year starts in August.

The district's policy comes as police departments across the country are equipping their officers with body cameras following recent protests over the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police or in police custody and complaints about fractious police-community relations.

Cameras in schools, however, have been mainly limited to hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, and common areas. Many schools districts have also installed cameras on school buses. The Houston school district said in February that it was equipping all of its police officers with body cameras, arguing that doing so would lead to greater accountability. Such policies have elicited student-privacy concerns in the civil rights community. 

The thought of school administrators wearing body cameras has raised even more eyebrows, not only about possible student-privacy violations, but also about whether such a policy could lead to a breakdown in trust among administrators, parents, and students.

The Burlington school district said the cameras are meant to be used only during some private meetings between administrators, parents, and students. Such meetings may include discussions about discipline or complaints leveled against an administrator or a student.

"The goal of the new policy is to ensure that all parties are being treated with dignity, honor, and respect at all times," Patrick Coen, the district's superintendent, said in a statement released this week. "The cameras are another tool we have at our disposal to ensure that we are providing a safe, productive environment for our students, teachers, and staff."

Jeremy Tabor, the district's human resources director, said that recording those meetings would protect administrators, parents, and students by providing a complete accounting of what transpires.

"This is just another tool to help us to ensure that we know what happened in a situation versus trying to make a decision [based] on who we believe more," Mr. Tabor said.  

And even in those cases when the meeting is recorded, the parents, or students, will be informed—principals will be given a script to read—and parents and students will have the opportunity to decline, he said. 

"They are going to be informed of what's going on, and they would have the opportunity to say 'I am not comfortable with that, I don't want to be recorded,' and we'll proceed accordingly," Mr. Tabor said.  "But our goal is to help them understand that it is not only protecting the district, it's also protecting them so that if something were to happen, we have accurate information that we can reflect on and say 'Ok, we know what happened, we can address the situation accordingly.'"

Principals will be given the discretion to decide which meetings they will tape, said Mr. Tabor, who added that the policy as contemplated does not specify exactly what situations warrant videotaping.

He also said that the written policy, guidelines, and training for principals are all expected to be completed before school reopens. The video plan for principals will closely follow the district's policy covering the use of cameras on school buses, according to the district.

News of the policy started making the national rounds on Sunday when the Des Moines Register wrote about it. The policy was apparently approved in principle at a school board meeting in May with little fanfare.

Mr. Coen told the paper that the move was predicated on accountability and setting high expectations for conduct from staff, parents, and teachers. Mr. Coen, a member of the Iowa National Guard, served in Afghanistan, where soldiers used helmets with cameras, and used his military experience with the cameras to advance the proposal.

But Kenneth S. Trump, the president of the Ohio-based National School Safety Security Services, who had previously called the policy a potential "overreach," did not back away from his earlier criticism that the policy was ill-advised. 

He said the policy might be well-intentioned, but that "we have to distinguish—this is not the battlefields of Afghanistan or the dark alleys of a city street."

"This is a school, a child-centered organization" where success is dependent on all parties having "a trusting relationship," he said.

Mr. Trump said that he also had a litany of questions about student privacy.

"Are these recording now public records?" he said. "Is it a FERPA [ the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act ] violation because student discipline and personal student information and circumstances are now being recorded? Where does it fall into place with due process for suspensions and expulsions? How long are these images going to be retained? What's the policy for that?  Who has access to it?  How is it stored? How is that kept secured? Is it going to be pulled up with future disciplinary matters with the [students] and used against them, and for how long?"

Mr. Tabor said he did not have answers to all the questions, but he did not think that the recordings would become public records. And, he said, the district would only retain information that was necessary for investigative or administrative purposes and those recording would be kept on the same server as the district's other video materials. (The district has cameras in its hallways, playgrounds, and cafeterias, but those cameras only record video.)

Mr. Trump said there were better ways to handle potentially volatile situations among administrators, parents, and students, including having additional witnesses present, training staff in deescalating situations, and not meeting in isolated areas.

"To me, it comes back again to context and climate," he said.  "Is this the way you want to run a school where you're supposed to have collaborative relationships with parents?" 

Further, he said, giving principals discretion of when to hit the record button creates the possibility that the policy could be discriminately applied and opens the district to accusations of "arbitrary, subjective, and discriminatory treatment."

The district said this week that the request for the body cameras came from Mark Yeoman, a middle school principal who had been accused of assaulting a student. Mr. Yeoman was cleared by the cameras, which did not show him hitting the student. 

"The district feels the cameras will protect everyone, while also holding administrators accountable for their behavior," the district's statement read. "If there is any misconduct a thorough investigation, based on the facts and hard evidence, will ensure the situation is properly addressed."

A spokesman for the Virginia-based National Association of Secondary School Principals said he was concerned that allowing principals to wear body cameras could get in the way of building trust and confidence in the schools.

"We'll be cautiously watching to see how this unfolds," Bob Farrace, the spokesman, said. "In schools and districts where video recording becomes commonplace, we hope school leaders would explore the underlying and pervasive culture issues that make the practice necessary."

Mr. Tabor said the district does not think the policy would affect the level of trust in the school community, and he is hoping that the principals would not have to use the recording option.  

"Our hope is that if we say 'hey we are going to record that conversation,' the conversation goes great, [and] we don't have anything to worry about," Mr. Tabor said. 

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