As schools around the United States continue to coddle their students, one Colorado academy is taking it to a new and startling level. In an attempt to ensure that its premises are “safe and secure” at all times, Windsor Charter Academy, a K-12 charter school, has installed surveillance cameras in all its bathrooms.
The aim of the school’s snooping is to prevent bullying and other harassment that administrators fear takes place outside of immediate supervised time. But not only is installing surveillance cameras in bathrooms an invasion of students’ privacy, bullying itself is going down nationwide at the same time that hysteria over it is increasing.
A Pediatrics study of 10-year trends in bullying, released in June, found that 10 out of 13 indicators of bullying decreased between 2005 and 2014. The report also observed a more general decline in bullying, victimization, and cyberbullying. The authors studied self-reported instances of bullying from 246,306 students in 109 Maryland schools. Their findings conclude: “Prevalence of bullying and related behaviors generally decreased over this 10-year period with the most recent years showing the greatest improvements in school climate and reductions in bullying.”
Why, then, do modern school administrators fear that any unsupervised time they allow students will devolve into harassment and violence?
As “Free Range Kids” founder Lenore Skenazy and psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it at Reason, since the 1980s, “children largely lost the experience of having large swaths of unsupervised time to play, explore, and resolve conflicts on their own.” This has created a generation of parents who fear any unstructured time for their children—that same generation are now school administrators, politicians, and teachers, which explains the bullying hysteria.
The decision by Windsor Charter has enraged some parents and led students to shy away from going to the restroom during school hours. But student surveillance is by no means unique to Windsor. A 2016 report found that about 90 percent of college campuses employed surveillance cameras, while about 33 percent of K-12 students have school-issued technology such as laptops that have been used to collect data on them. Some of the laptops come with spy software installed, which allows officials to keep a constant eye on what students are doing. One Philadelphia school even spied on students after classes were over, which resulted in a $610,000 settlement between the school and a pupil they surveilled.
Even bathroom peeping isn’t unique to Windsor. In Britain, a freedom of information request found that 207 schools across the island had installed some 825 cameras in bathrooms or changing rooms. Just as with Windsor, these measures were all justified under the guise of preventing bullying or “bad behavior.”
Back in America, as some states consider measures to dictate what restrooms students can use, you can certainly imagine a scenario where Windsor’s decision sets a precedent for even creepier bathroom surveillance. For example, in Virginia, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require transgender students at all public schools to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth. Failure to follow the law would result in a $50 fine. Lawmakers haven’t spelled out how they would determine which students were using which restrooms, but the Roanoke Times satirized the idea by proposing waist-level cameras in every school bathroom.
Not only is this constant state of spying incredibly creepy, it also makes students less prepared to tackle the real world. As Skenazy and Haidt argue, “When we raise kids unaccustomed to facing anything on their own, including risk, failure, and hurt feelings, our society and even our economy are threatened.”
If students grow up in a world where they feel they are constantly being watched, they are less likely to develop necessary problem-solving skills, because they know adults will always step in to handle the tough issues. This will lead to more of the hysterical “safe space” culture we see on college campuses and will ultimately result in a risk-averse workforce unwilling to challenge the status quo and try new things for fear of failure.
Constant surveillance of students is both a violation of their rights and another example of how an entire generation has been mollycoddled. Students deserve the liberty to handle their own affairs—especially going to the bathroom.
Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in Arlington, Virginia. He writes about free speech, mass surveillance, civil liberties, and LGBT issues. He can be found on Twitter @Kinger_Liberty.