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EDITORIAL: Look at big picture on cameras

Augusta Chronicle - 3/9/2020

Mar. 9--Parents expect schools to keep an eye on their children while the children's minds are being enriched.

Precisely how big would you like that eye to be? And are you willing to pay for it?

Augusta Chronicle readers Sunday met Hephzibah mother Jessica Wells and read about problems she faced in assuring her son, Preston, stayed safe at school. Preston is 12 and autistic. Several years ago, Wells said, he was injured in an incident she said could have been better corroborated if there were video cameras installed in certain special-education classrooms.

Wells now is lending her voice to supporters of a Georgia House bill that, if signed into law, would require cameras in school classrooms that are "self-contained" -- meaning classrooms in which students stay all day, instead of moving to other classes and other teachers.

If you've been to your child's or grandchild's Richmond County chool lately, you likely already know that schools have cameras -- often a lot of them. During the 2015-16 school year, about 80% of U.S. schools -- including 94% of high schools -- had on-campus video surveillance, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Cameras are pointed at entrances, down hallways -- just about anywhere a teacher, administrator or security officer can't be every minute of every day.

Richmond County schools do not have cameras in all of its self-contained classrooms. Wells is expected to express her thoughts about that at the school board's next meeting Tuesday.

We agree with Wells. The idea has solid merit. Other counties' schools, such as Columbia County's, have such cameras. Situations arise among special-needs students that make cameras useful. If something adverse is affecting a student, and that student might not have the means to properly articulate what's happening, cameras can fill in important blanks in sometimes competing narratives.

Such cameras have proved their value locally in other settings. A Hephzibah woman who worked at a North Augusta daycare was charged last year on nine felony counts of mistreating children. The most compelling piece of evidence was a surveillance video appearing to show the woman in the act.

Often it boils down to money. If the state ends up requiring cameras, would the state even help pay for them -- especially at a time where the state budget is being cut to the bone? Would some school systems have to raise our taxes further to pay for them?

In 2016, then-Gov. Nathan Deal approved a pilot program for cameras in special-needs classrooms. Whatever came of that? How successful was it? The answers to all those questions should be found before other discussions on the subject move further.

Above all, the question that should accompany conversations involving surveillance cameras is: Exactly whose rights -- and whose privacy -- would be properly protected?

Passage of this year's House bill is a long shot, but introducing such bills sometimes prods a public concern to be examined further by lawmakers.

This clearly is one of those times. Cameras in special-needs classrooms are important tools to help monitor and assure safety. But using them means first weighing not only the benefits but the potential consequences.


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