Friday, January 09, 2009

Experts Worried About Buses Wired for Surveillance

The Canadian Press

EDMONTON -- Surveillance cameras are gradually making their way onto school buses with education and transport officials defending the equipment as a good deterrent to rowdy behaviour and bullying.

But some privacy experts say the cameras don't always discourage misbehaving and represent a possible invasion of student privacy.

Earlier this month, Pembina Trails School Division in Winnipeg became one of the latest school districts to put surveillance cameras on all of its buses after a 65-year-old driver was charged with sexually assaulting a female student.

Across the country, some school divisions in Canada have been using such technology for up to 15 years.

Dave Carroll, a safety and legislation consultant for the Ontario School Bus Association, says there are 18,000 school buses in Ontario and the practice of using cameras is not widespread.

But there are boards which use them to discourage rowdy behaviour by students.

"To my knowledge, the board would decide to install cameras not so much to monitor drivers, but to monitor student behaviour so that the kids would be more inclined to act responsibly," Carroll said from his office in Etobicoke, Ont.

Some school districts place phoney cameras with a glowing red light on buses to fool students, he said.

"It's a less expensive way to equip the fleet, and then they move the real cameras from bus-to-bus so the kids never know if they've got an active camera or not."

Joel Sloggett, chief administrative officer for Student Transportation Services of Central Ontario, which provides service for several school boards in the region, said the company rotates about 25 cameras on its 650 school buses.

Sloggett said the principal of a particular school decides whether there's a need for video cameras on a particular bus due to allegations of bullying or physical altercations between students.

"Nine times out of 10, when you put a video camera on, things settle right down because students now realize that the camera is on."

Cameras are also being used on public transit.

The Toronto Transit Commission is putting cameras on its buses after attacks on drivers, Carroll noted.

About 535 transit buses in Winnipeg will also be equipped with digital cameras by the end of 2009 in an attempt to make buses safer from vandals and violent passengers.

But Brian Edy, a Calgary lawyer and former president of the Alberta Civil Liberties Association, said there are always privacy concerns when people are being filmed without their consent.

Edy said parents may be concerned about how widely the tape could be viewed, and who could look at it.

"People will always suggest that cameras will assist us. It doesn't always increase security and that is the unfortunate part of it. It doesn't always prevent a problem," Edy said.

"We have to be careful about getting on that slippery slope of trading away all our privacy, everywhere, in favour of a camera that may or may not be a deterrent."

School bus drivers may end up benefiting from the cameras, Carroll said.

"Some of them may feel that it's a good way to protect the driver against any kind of false accusations. So the drivers might benefit from that as well."

But Carroll said it's rare to hear complaints against bus drivers, especially complaints of a criminal nature.

"We just don't hear very often of any kind of driver conduct that would warrant putting them in tens of thousands of school buses across Canada. It would be a very expensive proposition."