The Big Brother debate in schools – between child safety and GDPR rules

The legislative proposal that requires video and audio surveillance cameras to be installed in all kindergartens and nurseries in Romania, including classrooms, has, as expected, divided society in two. “Adevărul” reporters talked to several experts who resolved the issue.

Nurseries and kindergartens could be required to have surveillance cameras. Photo source: archive

According to the legislative draft, all nurseries and kindergartens – both state and private – could be obliged to install audio-video monitoring systems in classrooms, outside the buildings, in the hallways, in the dining rooms and in the festive ones . Then, the respective units will have to convey to the parents the method by which they will be able to access the images during the entire period while their child is in the premises of the respective educational unit, the project also states. Moreover, the implementation of surveillance systems could be done without parental consent, given that these cameras could become mandatory in the context of preventing incidents of any kind.

However, this proposal gives rise to a series of controversies and flagrantly violates the GDPR regulation. Daniela Cireașă, president of the Association of Data Privacy Specialists in Romania, stated for “Adevărul” that “both our employees and children are considered vulnerable persons by the GDPR regulation. Under these conditions, we should further protect their personal data. Let's imagine what it means for 30 parents who will have round-the-clock access to the sound, but also to the images of all the children in that group, not just their own child. How do we protect others? Because at the nursery and kindergarten, the children are changed in those spaces. Including before sleep. And many still wear diapers, which they obviously change. We are talking about some intimacies that happen in those spaces and to a much greater extent than at school. And now, let's imagine that all parents have access to those images, to what's going on there. Even if he does not have the possibility through the surveillance system to copy the images, any person can record or photograph them with his own mobile phone. And can distribute them further. We open, without realizing it, the way to abuses that are hard to imagine!”, the specialist explained to us. And, the expert asks, who will take care of the maintenance, who will have visual access to the recordings, how long will the images be kept in the archive? Who will process this data?

Kindergarten director: “I would invest in people, not tracking systems”

Ileana Ionescu, the director of the “Scufița Roșie” kindergarten in Bucharest, told us that, in general, a surveillance camera placed in the classroom only makes the teacher work under pressure and stress. “The moment the teacher, the teacher or the educator does not enter the classroom relaxed, the moment they feel pressure and constraint, they can no longer work as they should: Calm, focused, dedicated. They would feel constantly watched and even judged. It would be better to invest in the training of the teaching staff, in such a way that we do not need audio-video supervision”, specified this.

The director testified that she was not on any side of the barricade. “I am neither pro nor against, because in our unit there were no problems, there are no problems, the educators do their jobs with love and we are not afraid of anything. However, it must be taken into account that there are parents who put pressure on the teaching and evaluation system, generally speaking. The problem should be looked at from this point of view as well”.

The headmistress of the “Scufița Roșie” kindergarten in Capital stated that the placement of video cameras would not be a problem in her educational unit. “We don't have this stress. Anyway, we have cameras in the hallways, at the entrances and in the courtyard. We have nothing to hide. We are transparent. Whether I'm monitored or not, I still do my job.” the teacher confessed.

But, she also draws attention, such monitoring in the classroom would not benefit anyone. “There will be teachers who will feel harassed. They start feeling that they are not trustworthy. That you need to check. I believe that instead of making such an investment in systems, we'd better make it in people.”

Video surveillance in schools violates the GDPR regulation

Video surveillance cameras are installed in schools and high schools, according to the law, but there are also certain restrictions here. In high schools, for example, the surveillance system is located at the entrances to the institution, in the hallways and in the school yard, while in many secondary schools, the systems are also installed in the classrooms. The reason? The National Assessment exams, video monitored exams, are organized in these rooms. According to the law, however, the cameras can also operate during the rest of the year, basically watching the daily activity of the classes, especially where incidents often take place. But, this happens only with the consent of the majority of parents. That is 50%+1.

However, this measure, says Daniela Cireașă, president of the Association of Data Privacy Specialists in Romania, does not comply with the GDPR regulation. “Monitoring should be done after all parents give their consent. In the present case, the majority should not decide. And one more aspect: no one has asked the following question: how do we proceed if today a parent gives his consent, and after a while withdraws it? Theoretically, at that point, the cameras should stop working. But does it really happen like that? Then, the consent of the parents regarding the operation of the cameras in the classrooms is entered into the educational contract. It would be normal, as the GDPR regulation says, for this consent to be taken separately, following an information note. A signature at the end of the contract does not mean that I have given my consent“, says the data protection specialist.

After the implementation of the video surveillance system in schools violates the GDPR regulation, now the authorities come up with an even more nefarious idea, according to Daniela Cireașa. “They want video cameras without parental consent, and everyone to have access to the images!”

Iulian Cristache, the president of the Federation of Romanian Parents, explained to us that the audio-video monitoring implemented in all educational units would prevent acts of violence in schools and bullying. “When surveillance cameras will be installed in all classes, there won't be so many conflicts between students, but also between teachers and students. We will also have a greater presence in class, both in terms of students and teachers. There are teachers who do not respect the hours, who come 15 minutes late to class. Likewise, we deal with a lot of aggressive students. Knowing that you, as a teacher or parent, have the opportunity to demonstrate a certain behavior, I believe that things will only go well”, he explained.

Iulian Cristache specified that there is a need for audio video surveillance in schools in Romania, but with a special regime of access to images. “How should it be done? In the event of a conflict, the parent should have the right to request access to the images. To have proof. And the school management should allow him this access”, he explained the procedure. “We must not go to the other extreme, where we deepen the gap between parents and teachers even more. It doesn't seem normal to me as a parent to be looking at these images non stop, at any moment and at any second. There is a risk that some of the parents, and I am referring here especially to those who do not have a very high level of education, think that any intervention by the teacher or anything that happens in the classroom must be reported”.

Iulian Cristache also said that there are parents who get involved in the educational act, which is not right at all. “These cameras should prevent violence in schools and not allow parents to judge the educational act. Only a school principal can evaluate the performance or non-performance of teachers in that institution. There are methodists, school inspectors, institutions for that. Not us, the parents should do that.”

“Teachers are also being bullied. The cameras would give us the clearest proof”

It's not just privacy experts and some teachers who are against cameras in classrooms, but also many parents.

In this context, I talked with the headmistress of a general school in Bihor county. Here, out of 27 classes, video surveillance is used in only six. And that's not because the teachers don't want it, but even the parents opposed it. The reason? “We have children in school with behavioral problems, and parents would like to protect them”, she explained. The director told us that parents are also afraid of those from Child Protection, who could report in certain situations. “We have children from disorganized, single-parent families, children with a precarious financial situation. There is aggression, bullying… we requested the placement of cameras, but in many classes the majority did not meet”, she also said.

Iulian Cristache reinforces this idea. “We also have problem children, and parents don't want tangible proof of what some of them are doing in class. So that there are no repercussions”.

The headmistress of the school in Bihor told us that the video surveillance system would also protect the teachers. “We would have undeniable proof of what happens day by day. The moment a teacher would say that he was disturbed, assaulted, he would also have proof of this fact. Now, it's just his word against the abuser's word. If everything was recorded, we would have proof, and the student would be sanctioned. However, they want to “jump” over these sanctions. There are some parents with whom we cannot cooperate at all”. But in general, the teacher says, parents are not willing to team up with the school.”

According to the current law, school management can request the introduction of surveillance cameras with the consent of parents in conflict situations. “For now, we have a video surveillance system in the hallways, on the buildings. And in the classes where we obtained the consent of the parents. However, we want this system implemented throughout the school. The teachers told me they would feel safer,” the director of the school in Bihor also declared.