The Boston Globe reports that the Boston School Department, worried about bullying on yellow buses, is buying audio-enabled camera systems to install on them. MBTA buses have already added camera systems that are not enabled for audio. As ever, the justification is “safety”: driver safety, student safety, whatever kind of safety. Mention the word “safety”, and it shuts down reasonable questions like: Well, how much safety and at what cost?
I was bullied as a kid – bullied on buses, in stairwells, in restrooms, in parks. I’d be the last person on earth to trivialize bullying or pretend that it isn’t awful. I appreciate that the Boston schools are taking bullying seriously and want to encourage students to treat one another with decency. But cameras on buses don’t internalize decency in kids; they internalize compliance when being watched. I was never bullied when authority figures were watching; that doesn’t mean that the solution would have been, in pre-digital days, to station a concerned adult everywhere a kid might get bullied. Nor are cameras and microphones the solution here.
We are training our children to expect to be watched, tracked, recorded, at school and in public. When we invest in cameras, we’re not investing in training them to treat each other decently; we’re investing in automated monitoring to discourage them from mistreating one another when a camera is there. That’s a whole different thing.
The expectation encoded in this kind of decision is that certain kinds of kids (Boston kids, naturally, not “nice” suburban kids) are too unruly, too untrainable, to be expected to behave without cameras watching them and microphones listening in.
The academic literature on surveillance cameras suggests that cameras don’t deter crime; they displace it. The school is taking a space it controls and making it harder to bully people in that space; this will shift the bullying to spaces that are harder for the school to control, and where the bullying won’t appear in school statistics. It might make sense from a liability perspective, but it doesn’t make sense from the perspective of actually reducing bullying.
How much training is there in the Boston schools to encourage empathy and non-violent conflict resolution among kids? How much funding is there for such “soft” solutions, versus technological solutions? It would cost about $400,000, for example, to implement the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program across the Boston Public Schools. How much will it cost to put a SmartDrive camera system in each of their 750 buses? The Boston Public Schools aren’t saying, but I’m betting rather more than that.
And so it goes: As is so often the case with surveillance questions, we mistake the map (what is measured) for the territory (what is really happening). We see fewer incidents of bullying on the buses, and we assume that bullying is actually going down. Ask any bullied kid, and they’re likely to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.
I’d welcome perspectives from within the Boston school system on this. Maybe I’m underestimating what they’re already doing. It just looks, from the Globe’s reporting, as if this may be a reflexive decision based on a marketing pitch, rather than a strategic decision based on what will be most effective.
UPDATE: It looks like the Boston Public Schools have decided not to install audio-enabled cameras on their buses, as a result of the backlash from people concerned about civil liberties. Good work!