Employee Rights in Schools That Use Surveillance

Since the 1980s, when video cameras began recording the actions of kids on school buses, there has been a steady increase in the electronic monitoring of students and employees in American schools. However, what may seem like “reasonable surveillance” to a school board may seem like an "invasion of privacy" to an employee, so American courts are increasingly being asked to determine who’s right.

Expectation of Privacy

There are no federal laws regarding electronic surveillance of school employees per se. However, Constitution Daily reports that since the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Katz v. United States, which established “expectation of privacy” as the guiding principle in electronic surveillance cases, courts throughout the country have used this metric to determine what is acceptable surveillance and what is not.

For example, courts have ruled that video cameras are permissible in common areas of the school, such as hallways, classrooms and libraries, where privacy is not reasonably expected. However, electronic surveillance has been deemed improper in areas of the school where privacy can be reasonably expected, such as a private office, bathrooms and locker rooms.

Varying Interpretations

Although courts have relied on the "expectation of privacy" concept to guide them, their interpretation of the concept has determined the decisions. For example, the Ohio Court of Appeals found in Plock v. Board of Education that teachers who had sued their board for installing audio-visual recording devices in classrooms were in error because a classroom in a public school building is not intended for a teacher’s exclusive, personal use. Therefore, the teacher could not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Other Cases

Similarly, in the 1990 case, Roberts v. Houston Independent School District, the Texas Court of Appeals used the same reasoning, ruling that a teacher could be fired, based on evidence of poor performance recorded by a disputed classroom video system. In 2001, the Ohio Court of Appeals found in Brannen v. Board of Education that the school’s installation of a hidden video camera in its employee break room was proper because the room was open at all times to employees.

Therefore, employees had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the room. Although these are state decisions, they offer insight into how courts view school surveillance camera policy issues.

Governmental Interest

In 2002, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls further established the “legitimate governmental interests test,” in which the employee’s right to privacy is weighed against governmental considerations. With this test, a school board’s promotion of such issues as safety, student well-being and other matters of school operation may be sufficient to override Fourth Amendment protections against warrant-less search and surveillance.

Working Within a School Security Camera Policy

The bottom line here is that school employees do not have the right to privacy, save for areas where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy such as restrooms and changing areas. However, the school should make it clear to employees they are being filmed. Where surveillance extends to digital surveillance, for example, monitoring internet usage, then the school should have a clear policy about what is and what is not permitted.

Employers that do not publish their school video surveillance policy have a genuine risk of liability. Employees who feel that the employer is overstepping its surveillance rights may be able to claim discriminatory enforcement.