Three cheers for CCTV cameras in school toilets

Despite many fearing the new scheme to be invasive, this is a practical solution to tackle the widespread problem of bullying in schools.

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The Independent Online

More than 200 schools are using CCTV cameras in toilets or changing rooms, figures showed today.

Radclyffe School in Oldham, led by the delightfully named Hardial Hayer, has installed 20 cameras in its toilets. Good idea. Bravo.

Let me explain why I approve. ‘Toilets,’ by which I mean not the lockable cubicles but the area leading to them where basins (and in the case of boys, urinals) are, are generally speaking a staff-free zone. Teachers don’t go in them, or very rarely. Pupils know that.

That is why toilets have always been where school bullying tends to start when one or more pupils turn on a vulnerable one. Many’s the child I’ve spoken to over the years who is actually frightened to use the toilets at school and would rather ‘hold on’ for hours until she or he gets home.

It is also to the toilets that a thief will often run with his or her booty. Any teacher will tell you that if, say, a  purse goes missing that, as long as you’re quick, there’s a good chance of finding it hidden in a student lavatory cistern – hidden by the thief with the intention of collecting it later in the day.

Mr Hayer is on record as saying that the cameras in his school are over the doors pointing at the basin area. They are not directed into areas where pupils have to remove clothing to use the toilets. Some schools also have cameras in some changing areas, which is arguably trickier because, by definition, children have to undress there. So proper supervision by teachers is probably more appropriate than cameras there.

According to a survey by the anti-surveillance organisation Big Brother Watch, large numbers of schools now have cameras all over the building. The 2000 schools it surveyed in England, Wales and Scotland have, between them, a total of 47,806 cameras and in over 200 schools some are sensibly placed in toilet areas.

Cue for shock horror from various groups whose raison d’etre is to find fault with reasonably sensible policies.  Have parents been consulted? What happens to the footage? What about children’s privacy? What are schools such as Radclyffe doing about data protection?

Parents applying to send their children to a school should simply be informed that these cameras are there and that they are part of the school’s way of protecting children. The Department for Education, by the way, permits each school to make its own decision.

The reason for the cameras can also be explained to children. No child wants to be bullied and very few will approve of theft or want to make things easier for thieves. Just as I am quite happy to walk home at night from my local railway station in the dark secure in the knowledge that if there’s an incident it will probably be caught on camera, so the vast majority of children will be pleased to know that the cameras are there in their school if it’s presented in the right way.

Cameras will also deter the bullies in the first place - just as speed cameras have an impact on motorists.

I reckon most children would feel braver about coming forward to report incidents if they knew there was some corroborative evidence too. Cameras will also deter the bullies in the first place - just as speed cameras have an impact on motorists. If it were me I’d put a large notice up saying something like: ‘Considering bullying someone? Don’t even think about it. Your behaviour will be caught on camera and you will be disciplined. Bullying is not tolerated in this school.’

But Big Brother Watch doesn’t like cameras because they’re intrusive. Well, there is another solution and I’ve seen it operating sucessfully in one or two enlightened schools. Abolish staff toilets and have everyone – adults and children - use the same ones. Then the toilets are much safer because they are no longer a place children have to brave alone. Try telling that to most teachers steeped as they are in their ‘us and them’ culture.

And as for cameras elsewhere in the school? Well why not? Teachers and other supervising adults cannot be everywhere at once and cameras can help with ensuring orderly, crime free behaviour. But if a school can afford only a small number I’d prioritise the toilets.

There is, of course, a sensible question of who is looking at the pictures on the camera.  Well, many schools employ security staff these days and these should all, obviously be CRB checked. I’d also advocate monitor screens in senior pastoral staff offices. Beyond that couldn’t schools pledge to destroy footage after a set length of time, perhaps a year?

Most people, remember, are decent caring human beings who want to keep children and young people safe, Very few (thank goodness) are perverts seeking sexual kicks from grainy pictures of children chatting at wash basins. So few are they, in fact, that it is time we stopped skewing all our policies and attitudes to thwarting them and exercised a bit of common sense.

Although of course it exists and has to be dealt with where it does, paedophilia is not a widespread problem in our schools.  Bullying is.

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