Across Rhode Island, police departments are right now ordering, receiving and beginning to train on how to use new body-worn cameras. Many expect to be operational in the next few months — school resource officers included. Though they are often so integrated into the life of the school they seem like members of the faculty, they are not. School resources officers are members of the local police force, trained as such, and reporting to the local chief of police.
Okay, class, consider this scenario …
Two high school boys start yelling at each in a crowded cafeteria. One flips a tray of food across the table. The second jumps up and lunges back at the other. All around, kids start screaming for them to fight and they whip out phones to record the chaos.
Rushing from the other side of the cafeteria, the school resource officer turns on his body-worn camera as a couple of awkward teenage punches fly. It takes a minute or two to settle things down, and the camera is rolling the whole time. Dozens of kids, including some of those taunting and shouting profanities, are captured on the officer’s camera.
Okay, end scene. Here are the questions to consider …
What happens with that officer’s camera footage?
Who can view it?
Is it used to criminally prosecute the combatants?
Is it used to discipline the others who helped fuel things?
Does it record the teacher who rushed to help and inadvertently elbowed a student in the face, sending her to the nurse’s office with a bloody nose?
Is the footage accessible to the public?
Should it be?
Now, class, discuss … Who wants to start?
Conversations like this might start happening in every community in Rhode Island in the next few weeks. Or they might not.
Except for Smithfield, every town in Rhode Island has accepted grant money, typically hundreds of thousands of dollars, to equip their entire police force with body-worn cameras. The programs are intended to create transparency and accountability for officers and their interactions with the public.
Many advocates are in favor of the cameras, and they were thrilled when the Rhode Island General Assembly allocated more than $16 million back in 2021 to spread the cameras statewide. At the time, however, few people were thinking about school resource officers, who are assigned nearly full-time to walk the halls and interact with students and staff, in nearly every school district in the state.
The new reality is coming soon. Across Rhode Island, police departments are right now ordering, receiving and beginning to train on how to use the new cameras. Many expect to be operational in the next few months — school resource officers included. Though they are often so integrated into the life of the school they seem like members of the faculty, they are not. School resources officers are members of the local police force, trained as such, and reporting to the local chief of police.
A new set of regs
In October, after months of dialogue with the Rhode Island State Police and the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, the R.I. Attorney General’s Office released a lengthy set of guidelines for use of the cameras. Every police department in Rhode Island (aside from Smithfield) is expected to adopt the document as its official policy for the use of body-worn cameras.
Though the policy document is 16 pages long, it devotes just one paragraph to schools, and that paragraph is laced with language warning about the decision to, and implications of, using these cameras is schools. It states: “Decisions about whether to equip a School Resource Officer (‘SRO’) with a body-worn camera raise important educational, privacy, and public safety considerations. The potential impact of an officer equipped with a camera on a school district’s ability to foster a productive educational environment and a community’s interest in preserving students’ privacy, for instance, must be carefully balanced against the community’s interest in ensuring transparency and accountability regarding officer/student interactions in a school setting.”
The word “schools” is mentioned one other time as well, under a section detailing the “limited circumstances” in which an officer might turn off his or her camera. It identifies private residences, law offices, places of worship, hospitals, daycare facilities and schools as areas where there is an inherent expectation of privacy.
Yet despite those warnings, the default setting for use of the cameras in schools appears to be, affirmative. Contacted within the past week, police chiefs in multiple towns, including Bristol, Barrington, Portsmouth and Tiverton, said “yes,” their school resource officers will be wearing the cameras.
They need school permission
In the official body-worn camera policy, the second half of that single paragraph about schools makes it clear that, in order to introduce the cameras in schools, police departments must sign an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the school district authorizing their use. This is why a consortium of nine different agencies went on the offensive a week ago and sent a letter to every school superintendent in the state, urging them to not sign an MOU for body-worn cameras.
The situation is fresh and many school administrations have so far given this issue little to no attention. Contacted for this story, Barrington Superintendent of Schools Mike Messore responded by email to say, essentially, “talk to the chief.” After being told that the schools will have a say in their use, he wrote back: “We plan on working closely with the chief of police before anything is implemented in the schools.”
Portsmouth Superintendent of School Thomas Kenworthy wrote, “We have been informed that the Portsmouth Police Department will be getting body-worn cameras for all officers. School Resource Officers are police officers first. The Portsmouth School Department, like most school districts in Rhode Island, is currently reviewing our MOU regarding School Resource Officers with our school department attorney.”
Asked if the decision-making process would involve the public, Mr. Kenworthy said yes, it would involve the school committee, but warned: “Safety discussions do fall under the Executive Session privilege in Rhode Island though.”
In East Providence, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sandra Forand was both aware of the letter and had briefly discussed the camera question with the city’s chief of police. “We are currently consulting with our legal counsel on the issue, but haven't made any decisions at this point. My understanding is the department won’t be ready to roll out cameras until January, so we are going to meet again once we have additional information,” she wrote.
In the Bristol Warren Regional School District, Chief of Police Kevin Lynch said they already have an MOU, signed back in May between he and Superintendent of Schools Ana Riley, authorizing use of body-worn cameras in their schools. Multiple inquiries to Riley did not elicit a response before press time.
The arguments against – Aggressive discipline
The letter mailed to every superintendent in the state was signed by nine different agencies. They include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Center for Justice, Rhode Island Kids Count and others (see letter). Their concerns include student privacy, the potential for live cameras to change how SROs interact with students, and the potential for minor school infractions to escalate into criminal justice proceedings because there is recorded video evidence.
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU, is often on the opposite side of debates from law enforcement. It’s why initial responses to this story from law enforcement sources were dismissive of the letter and its contents.
“The ACLU advocated for these cameras, but apparently only under circumstances that they were interested in,” Chief Lynch said during a first phone conversation. He further questioned the validity of the groups because most of them are opposed to the use of SROs to begin with.
The ACLU’s Brown is not surprised by the dismissive stance from some in law enforcement, and he is steadfast in his concerns about the use of body-worn cameras in schools. He worries that police footage will be used for purposes beyond the prosecution of criminal infractions. He worries the cameras will become tools in basic school discipline. “Police with cameras are suddenly providing footage about minor incidents that are purely disciplinary matters,” Brown said. “So the police end up being school spies in a way. It creates a surveillance atmosphere in the schools that is not conducive to learning or what schools should be about.”
Chief Lynch of Bristol said the cameras will not be rolling throughout the day. “The officers will not be walking around the halls filming students in an effort to catch infractions. That is not the mission of the Bristol Police Department or the justification for the SRO program. No, we will not be taking part in that,” Chief Lynch said. “The school will have to determine their own justification for discipline issues. We will not be using the body-worn camera program for those purposes.”
Chief Lynch said the officers will turn on the cameras if “a violent situation erupts in the school,” or if there is an active situation that would warrant normal police response, such as an assault, an intruder in the school, or even an accident in the student parking lot.
“It is not, and never will be, my intent to create a police state in the schools,” Chief Lynch said. “The school will have to determine their own justification for discipline issues. We will not be using the body-worn camera program for those purposes.”
Brown warned that, despite what law enforcement may say, the body-camera policy itself remains sweeping and subject to wide interpretations. “Their policy states that the cameras are to be utilized during ‘calls for service,’ which can mean just about any interaction. It’s very open-ended, and could lead to routine use of the cameras throughout the school day,” Brown said.
The arguments against – Criminal justice
Some of the agencies warning about the dangers of cameras in schools spend a lot of time fighting against the “school to prison pipeline,” which impacts thousands of children across the country. Analysts point to data showing that small school infractions are often elevated to major school infractions, which can lead to young people becoming “juvenile delinquents” and ultimately landing them in the criminal justice system. Their data say it disproportionately impacts black and minority children.
Jennifer Wood, executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, has been a practicing attorney for more than 35 years. She spent 10 years as general counsel for the Rhode Island Department of Education. She now runs the small nonprofit agency that provides free legal services to low-income families, often representing students in educational matters. She is highly concerned about the introduction of body-worn cameras.
“The police say they will only turn on the cameras when there is an investigatory purpose. So what is the investigatory purpose for a middle school kid? Is this an interrogation without an adult present? Is this an investigation to see whether or not a kid is boosting someone else’s lunch money? I’m unclear on the translation from standard operating procedure for an officer on the street with adults, to a school setting.”
Wood said school personnel are supposed to be specially trained to understand teenagers, who can display widely divergent levels of maturity and decision-making. “Some of them look like they’re 18, and some of them act like they’re 10. I think it’s a very volatile and dangerous situation to have these two worlds overlaid without careful examination of how students and familial rights are going to be protected when this new technology comes into school buildings in a wholesale way. I hope that the more that people talk about this, the more they think, ‘whoa, this is kind of a big deal.’ ”
The ACLU’s Brown added, “It can create a situation where, because a recording exists, an officer can feel compelled to take stronger action that he should.”
Wood also worries about the camera footage impacting certain populations of students more than others. “One area where I am very concerned, on behalf of the young people we represent and particularly on behalf of young people of color and young people with disabilities — because the statistical evidence is undisputed — those students are more impacted when there are arrests in schools, and it creates a criminal record for conduct that might otherwise be dealt with by school authority as an internal matter,” she said.
The arguments against – privacy
Another big argument for the opposition groups is student privacy. Wood, of the Center for Justice, spoke at length of the legal ramifications. A federal law known as FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) allows parents to access their child’s educational records, and it creates controls over the privacy of those records. Wood speculates that the police-recorded footage will not be covered under FERPA, thus allowing potentially sensitive videos of children to enter a different realm, without the same privacy protections.
Chief Lynch of Bristol said officers will be given wide latitude to deactivate those cameras if involved with sensitive student matters. “If an officer is dealing with a mental health situation, I don’t want the officers documenting that,” Chief Lynch said. That’s when the cameras will be turned off, he said. “Our goal is never to record a student in a setting that is sensitive
They will be turned off when there is a sensitive situation,” he said.
Tiverton Chief of Police Patrick Jones said their SRO will wear a camera, and he hopes to have the program operational early in 2023. He wrote via email: “School Resource Officers must balance the privacy of the students to maintain an education environment and their role to address security and legal issues. I am confident given the relationship we have with our school department that it should not be a problem.”
The police body-camera policy makes it clear that body-camera footage, when it is captured and stored, is subject to the state’s Access to Public Records Act. This means there may be privacy protections, or there may not be, depending on the nature of the record.
The arguments in favor of cameras
Chief Lynch in Bristol is passionate on the subject of school safety. “It is my number one concern when I get up in the morning, and when I return at night, that every child return home safely from school every day,” Chief Lynch said.
He is also an ardent proponent of the school resource officer program. In Bristol, they have added a comfort/therapy dog, the renowned Brody, to pair with a resource officer, and they recently expanded the program by adding a second SRO to the force. They have an officer assigned to the regional Mt. Hope High School and an officer for the town’s three elementary schools.
Chief Lynch considers the cameras another tool in the network of school safety. “I’ve been a big advocate of our SRO program. I expanded the program. We have a great relationship with the school district. We train inside the schools. We have a great program. We’ve got fantastic officers,” the chief said.
Wood finds the arguments for enhanced safety dubious, at this point. “I’m not understanding how filming the hallways makes them more safe,” she said. “So I want to see or hear physical evidence about why there's an enhanced safety benefit — something that has been revealed in other places, whatever that might be.”
Schools already have cameras
Several people interviewed for this story pointed out that schools already have surveillance cameras in place. Forand, the superintendent of schools in East Providence, said their gleaming new high school has nearly 400 security cameras in use every day. “Our administrators use the cameras all the time for student discipline issues,” she said.
Chief Lynch said the same. “Every school system in the state has internal camera systems,” he said. “They already have a surveillance system within the schools.”
Who makes the decision?
The ACLU, Center for Justice and other organizations wrote their letter to every superintendent in the state because the school districts must agree to the use of the police cameras in their schools. However, there is no clear path for who makes that decision. In Bristol, it seems the decision has already been made. In other communities, it remains to be seen.
Forand, of East Providence, said they will continue having conversations with the police, and with their attorneys, before making a decision. “East Providence has had SROs in schools for almost 20 years,” Forand said. “We’re so grateful to have them in our schools. We have great people. They’re considered part of our staff … I’m really appreciative of that relationship.”
As things stand now, she said, “I see both sides of it, but I really don’t have a strong opinion either way yet.”
If the East Providence school administration decides to move forward and recommend use of the police-worn cameras, Forand said the decision will be made publicly. “I would definitely bring that to the school committee,” she said.
Wood, former legal counsel for Rhode Island’s education department, hopes these conversations do unfold at the school committee level, involving the public, in all communities. “Remember what that one paragraph says, which is to examine this carefully, to balance those competing interests,” she said. “You can’t do that without hearing from your community. It’s possible that parents would come forward and say ‘my child's privacy is more important to me than some unexamined theory that this might be a safety issue’ … Without those conversations, this is a completely unexamined practice, not a policy, a practice, that may in fact violate federal law around the privacy side. It's a serious set of questions, and I think serious people need to examine it … I don't think we’ve even considered all of the ways in which this may have unintended consequences. So how could it be that we, as a state, would just drift into doing this without carefully looking at it as a community? That’s what we have a community for.”