#childsafety | The Delicate Ethics of Using Facial Recognition in Schools

To Salazar, adding her face to the watchlist without telling her was a sign of the district’s creeping authoritarianism. “Doing this without notifying me is not acceptable and I should have a right to challenge it,” she says. “How many other people have they done this to?” She worries about families in parts of the district where most students are poor, and black, who may not be comfortable challenging the administration. “A lot of the parents aren’t educated, and may feel scared.”

Superintendent Cavness says the community and his student advisory council are “fine” with the district’s security upgrades and use of facial recognition. When the bell at Texas City High School rang at 2:50pm on a Friday, teens swarmed between classes, exchanging friendly headlocks and complex handshakes without visible concern for the cameras overhead, strategically positioned over stairwells and at hallway intersections.

Isabela Johnston, a senior at Texas City High School and president of the political activism club, says not all students support the enhanced security. She wrote an editorial in the school newspaper the Sting City Press early this year flagging ACLU concerns about the effectiveness and racial bias of facial recognition systems. In April, Johnston polled more than 300 students about the new school safety measures; many said facial recognition and AR-15s on campus made them feel unsafe. More than 40 percent said the atmosphere at school had worsened compared with previous years.

Learning in the shadow of hardened doors, gun safes, and cameras backed by facial recognition algorithms can be stressful, Johnston says. “I don’t feel necessarily any safer or more in danger but it is a constant reminder that something could happen,” she says. “I’ve heard a lot of my peers vocalize the same thing: We’re constantly reminded this is a possibility.”

“I don’t feel necessarily any safer or more in danger but it is a constant reminder that something could happen.”

Isabela Johnston, Texas City High School senior

In Texas City, that reminder is vivid because of the attack that killed 10 students and staff last year at the high school in Santa Fe, a smaller city 20 minutes away. After that tragedy, James Grassmuck, who has two children in the Santa Fe Independent School District, including one at the high school, volunteered for a newly created safety and security committee. Last winter he ran successfully for a seat on the school board; his platform included a pledge to install facial recognition.

That system is now up and running, part of more than $2 million of security upgrades since the shooting. Grassmuck says facial recognition was attractive because it is less visible than other security measures, such as metal detectors and new fencing, and that the local community has been supportive. “I’ve not heard a single complaint,” he says, before adding, his voice faltering, “but we’re in a little bit of a different situation.”

Across the country, administrators and lawmakers feel pressure to do something—anything—about the possibility of a mass shooting. Prominent attacks often trigger the release of new local, state, or federal funds for school security. One month after Parkland shooting last year, Congress passed the Stop School Violence Act, which allocated funds for school security training and infrastructure. “Every time we’ve seen a high profile event like this, such as Columbine or Newtown, immediately after that you’ll see legislation that’s being introduced providing more funding for surveillance systems and police officers,” says Nance, the Florida professor.

Those types of funding measures don’t typically mention specific technologies, giving schools latitude to purchase facial recognition. In West Platte, voters approved a bond initiative that allowed the tiny rural district to pay for its $200,000 upgrade, said Bradley, the consultant who installed the system. In late 2014, New York state voters approved $2 billion for technology improvements, including “high-tech security features.” According to emails obtained by the NYCLU, officials in Lockport chose to use their allocation to purchase a facial recognition system from SN Technologies after receiving a free threat assessment offered by a consultant with financial ties to the company. SN Technologies declined to answer specific questions about the consultant’s relationship.

Another place where facial recognition-enabled cameras will soon post watch is Fulton County, Georgia, a suburban Atlanta school district with 95,000 students. In 2017, the district upgraded its camera system with software from Motorola’s Avigilon division that offers “appearance search,” allowing searches for individuals based on the color of their shirt or hair style. Paul Hildreth, the district’s technology director, compares the process to Googling, and says it has helped administrators investigate fights and vandalism.


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