The Savannah-Chatham County public school board decided Wednesday not to limit the number of citizens who can speak at a board meeting as was proposed last month, but the board is considering new restrictions to school visitors’ use of video, photography and audio recordings. The new proposals come at the same time the district is increasing its reliance on high-tech security measures, such as video surveillance.
Last month, in the wake of board meetings that brought the public out to comment on the millage increase and proposed changes to the recess policy, the board discussed changes to the “Public Participation in Board Meetings” policy. The changes would have limited the number of individuals commenting on an issue. But on Wednesday, the board reversed course and voted on a consent agenda item that kept in place the existing policy allowing an unlimited number of citizen speakers, said board president Jolene Byrne. Because it was on the consent agenda, the board did not take a roll call vote or provide an explanation for keeping the existing policy.
While the public is now free to speak on agenda items at board meetings, the board is considering restricting photography, videography and audio recordings in classrooms without permission from the principal or site supervisor. The board discussed proposed changes to two separate policies pertaining to SCCPSS employees and to parents and other school visitors. At the same time, it would leave in place most of the existing policy on video surveillance. The school district has been investing in new surveillance technology as part of an enhanced safety and security program in the wake of mass school shootings throughout the nation.
Proposed changes to a “Visitors to School” policy would ban parents from photographing or recording children other than their own at school. And it would prohibit parents and visitors use of audio and video recordings of private conversations in schools unless they obtain written permission of the site supervisor, which in most cases would be the principal. The bans wouldn’t apply to public events, such as extracurricular activities or performances, but they would apply when parents volunteer in their children’s classrooms and want to videotape the classroom.
Board member Julie Wade opposed the changes to the “Visitors to School” policy, stating the school district might have control over its employees but parents and other visitors shouldn’t be directed by the school board. “I know every year I sign some waiver that gives permission to photograph my kid and put it on social media,” she said. “I think the better policy is to have those waivers rather than check with the site supervisor.”
But Brian Dennison, assistant school board attorney, said “not all of our parents have signed waivers.” He raised a concern about a geo-positioning-system (GPS)-enabled video monitoring system called AngelSense that parents in other areas have attempted to use in schools to keep tabs on their children. The AngelSense system instructs parents to place a recording device in the child’s backpack or a pocket, so the device can send text messages to parents in real time of the child’s whereabouts. It also has a listen-in mode that could record other children’s conversations, according to the product website. Other new monitoring apps could allow children to be videotaped by other children’s parents. “It’s something we want to get ahead of,” Dennison said.
Under the proposed changes to the policy, parents and visitors who do obtain the principal’s permission to record at a school must ensure the recording device is visible when in use. “Secret recordings shall be prohibited,” the policy states. Recordings that “amount to a reasonable accommodation” to obtain school information would be permitted, the policy states.
The board also considered a separate policy aimed at Savannah-Chatham County employees that bans secret recordings and requires the site supervisor’s permission for recordings of students. Meetings related to personnel or an employee grievance would be exempt.
A separate existing policy on video surveillance and video monitoring “recognizes the value of electronic surveillance systems in monitoring activity” on school property and in district vehicles. The policy, which the school board last reviewed in June 2015 and last revised in January 2008, allows for video surveillance “to promote the order, wellness, safety and security of students, staff and property” but stipulates the district shall provide notice of the surveillance through the student and staff handbook or signage. It prohibits the surveillance in bathrooms, locker rooms and the nurse’s office. Surveillance videos are subject to student confidentiality policies.
The board considered a new bullet point to the policy, which states, “Surveillance videos are deemed to be jointly created by campus police and SCCPSS.” Dennison said this point allows the school district to treat surveillance video footage as “a noneducational record.” Educational records are governed by Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects student privacy and restricts who can view student information.
The proposed language “keeps the campus police out of the educational records,” Dennison said. The videotape could be used in a disciplinary hearing, he said. But if a videotaped issue becomes a disciplinary matter, then FERPA would apply because it would become an educational record, Dennison said. “There was recent guidance in who has the right to see the records if it’s a FERPA record. There’s going to be more clarity going forward in how we use videotape,” he said.
Board member Irene Hines asked how the school district monitors bathrooms and other areas where heightened privacy is a consideration. Testimony and other evidence instead of video surveillance would be used in those areas, Dennison said.