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Cameras on school buses raise privacy concerns

A growing number of Canadian school boards are placing surveillance cameras aboard the buses that transport children to and from their facilities, but privacy advocates are urging caution when it comes to filming minors.


February 17, 2009
By Neil Sutton

In January Pembina Trails School Division in Winnipeg opted to put
surveillance cameras in its buses following an incident in which a
65-year-old driver was charged with sexually assaulting a student.

The Evergreen School Division, also in Winnipeg, has a plan to put two
cameras inside buses to monitor student/driver behaviour, and two
outside to catch motorists passing illegally or driving erratically
around their buses.

The division’s goal is to have a minimum of two cameras on the 20-plus
buses that serve the eight schools in Arborg, Riverton, Gimli and
Winnipeg Beach. A limited number of buses will be equipped with four
cameras and placed on routes where drivers are known to drive more
haphazardly around school vehicles.

There are similar stories across Quebec, Alberta, Ontario and other
parts of the country: school divisions are taking steps to equip their
buses.

One of the problems leading to the consideration of cameras is driver
turnover, says Rick Donaldson, executive director of the Ontario School
Bus Association.

He says the OSBA frequently loses drivers — some of whom make about $14
an hour   to higher paying jobs in municipally-funded transit systems
like the Toronto Transit Commission. Fewer experienced drivers on
school buses only exacerbates disciplinary issues.

“It could be that the kids are the problem, or the driver is not
managing behaviour well, he says. “If there are disciplinary problems
on a particular route, then it may well be that the school board or
operator decides to put a camera on that bus to be able to monitor
behaviour. If there’s a significant problem, then a camera on a bus can
be used to address the issue with the parents and the child.”

Joel Sloggett, Chief Administrative Officer of the Student
Transportation Services of Central Ontario
(STSSO), says cameras are
usually a last resort when it comes to monitoring behaviour on buses.

The STSCO is the coordinating company for several Ontario school
boards, overseeing transportation for the Kawartha Pine Ridge District
School Board (KPR), the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland Clarington
Catholic District School Board (PVNC) and Conseil Scolaire de District
Catholique Centre-Sud (CSD).

Cameras on buses aren’t anything new, says Sloggett — some schools have
been doing it for years — but more schools are willing to consider that
step. The school bus is ultimately seen as an extension of the
classroom with the same expectations of conduct, he says. As such, it
is the school board’s responsibility to the outline appropriate use of
surveillance on buses and spell it out in school policy.

In Canada, Ontario in particular, the majority of bus services are
contracted out to transportation firms; school boards must also ensure
that camera policy is observed by these companies, says Sloggett.

According to the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board’s published
regulations: “To assist with the monitoring of safe practices on school
buses, selected contracted vehicles will be equipped to permit video
taping or digital video recording of passengers while riding the bus.”

The regulations further spell out that:

• Use of video cameras in no way supercedes other existing disciplinary procedures
• No tape or digital video recording device shall be used for general
viewing or driver training without the written consent of Student
Transportation Services
• Normally video tapes or recordings will be held no longer than five school days unless just cause warrants longer storage

With multiple parties involved in the collection, storage and
ultimately erasure of video tape footage, there are a number of privacy
issues to consider, says Sloggett.

“That’s the question of the day. We’ve never had any problems, but
following what’s in the news, that’s the sort of question that people
are asking: is it proper to be filming our children? I refer back to
board policy, which says only the principal, the bus company and us as
the middleman can view the tapes,” he says.

“If a parent were to come out of the woodwork and say this is not
reasonable . . . it’s going to draw the whole thing into question. . .
. We can’t say much more than we’ve got a policy that tells us what to
do. We’re charged with fulfilling that policy.”

The office of the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner would
rather see schools exhaust all other possibilities before turning to
cameras, says assistant commissioner Ken Anderson.

The IPC has released documentation about appropriate use of cameras on
school grounds but hasn’t tackled the issue of buses directly. Anderson
recommends that school boards show due diligence if they plan on using
cameras on buses — particularly if an outside bus company is brought in.

“If they want to outsource or bring in some independent third-party
people to help them perform something — fine — they are still
responsible and have to have good systems in place to ensure that the
people to whom they’re outsourcing do all the right things. it’s up to
the school board to ensure that the right thing happens with those
buses,” he says.

Robert Scott, vice-president of sales and marketing with 247 Security
Inc.
– an Atlanta firm with a Canadian-based parent – says that cameras
on school buses are extremely common in the U.S. His firm sells DVRs
and cameras and counts 1,500 American school boards among its clientele.

Scott says he’s turning his attention towards Canada in anticipation of
market growth. “Video in Canada on school buses is not as prevalent as
it is in the United States, (but) we envision that it’s going to become
so as school districts start to look more at security,” he says.

So far there has been little resistance from U.S. regulators to video
on school buses, he says. In fact, there is “a board-based acceptance
that video is an asset.

“There has been virtually no push back on using video on school buses
to assist with dealing with discipline issues, driver performance
related issues and liability management – being able to have video of
an incident and being able to understand what exactly happened.”

However, Scott sounds a note of caution when it comes to dealing with video – particularly when kids are involved.

“There’s no set pattern to how this sort of thing is done. Each school
district looks at it differently. The thing that we think is extremely
important is that the customer establishes a protocol internally that
ensures that their files our protected.”

The software 247 Security sells is a proprietary system that includes a
layer of password protection to prevent video from falling into the
wrong hands.

“We’ll say to a customer, ‘You don’t want your video to show up on YouTube.’”


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