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Province's push for school surveillance challenged

A proposed amendment to the B.C. School Act -- which gives school boards the legal authority to install surveillance systems -- provides no guidelines for how the privacy rights of students and staff will be protected, says a Vancouver-based surveillance watchdog.

The Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) says the amendment lacks any detail on how surveillance technologies, such as CCTV, will be managed in schools.

"In virtually every other instance where you have use of CCTV, such as Translink, there's a reasonably detailed process and protocol around how the information is deployed and how long images can be stored and who stores them, and so on," said director of VPSN Andrew Pask.

Of the 60 school districts in B.C., more than 25 are currently using video cameras for surveillance, according to a statement sent to The Tyee by Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid. This amendment would entrench in law the right to install surveillance systems, making it easier for other schools to do so.

"(The) government is amending the School Act to give parents, teachers, principals and students a say, through School Planning Councils, in determining whether new video surveillance cameras should be installed in their schools," she said.

Though a school board must get the consent of a school's planning council to install a camera, VSPN is concerned that boards are choosing to install surveillance cameras too hastily, without considering alternatives.

In its published guidelines for the implementation of public surveillance systems, The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner recommends that a "public body should only use surveillance as a last resort."

"It certainly concerns us that it's been put into the School Act," said Jim Burrows, manager of investigation with OIPC. "The commissioner has always taken the position that it's a last resort, whether for schools or for anything."

Burrows adds that while there are general privacy policies that schools follow, the difference is whether or not they are legislatively required to follow them under the proposed amendment.

Robyn Smith is completing a practicum at the Tyee.

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