Students walk down a hallway at Lockport High School in...

Students walk down a hallway at Lockport High School in upstate Lockport, as a camera with facial recognition capabilities, upper left, hangs on the wall in 2020. Credit: AP/Carolyn Thompson

This guest essay reflects the views of Reagan Razon, a junior at Duke University and research intern at the New York City-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

Imagine trying to learn with cameras monitoring every flick of your pen or walk to your locker. For many public school students, this panoptic surveillance is already a daily reality. Around the nation, education departments and individual schools partner with security vendors specializing in biometric surveillance technology that tracks students’ movements, facial recognition data, and other sensitive information.

Last fall, privacy advocates celebrated a significant victory when the New York State Education Department became the nation’s first to effectively “ban the scan” in schools, instituting a statewide prohibition on facial recognition technology. While this was a step in the right direction, a regulatory ban is not enough for long-term protections. The state must go further.

In schools, biometric surveillance can track attendance, enforce disciplinary measures, and identify unwelcome guests on campus under the guise of safety and protection. But a New York Office of Information Technology Services report last year found that the “risks of the use of [facial recognition technology] in an educational setting may outweigh the benefits.” These risks also vary across student populations.

Facial recognition in the classroom increases the frequency with which Black and brown students are singled out and disciplined.

School resource officers and zero-tolerance policies are part of a long history of criminalizing students and student behavior in schools. Constant surveillance fuels that bias and puts Black and brown youth at further risk of potentially violent contact with law enforcement. The Center for Democracy and Technology found that 44% of teachers said students “have been contacted by the police as a result of student monitoring.”

Surveillance technology now includes classroom screen monitoring software, social media scanners, and noise detectors like gunshot detection microphones. These technologies also put LGBTQIA+ students in danger of psychological distress and unwanted outing. Biometric tools such as remote proctoring and mental health monitoring track students’ facial expressions, speech, and movements for “normal” behavior based on ableist standards, punishing neurodivergent students and students with disabilities because their brains work differently.

About 15% of 14-to-18-year-old students surveyed last year by the ACLU reported that surveillance makes them anxious and paranoid. This fear is justified.

In 2023, Porcha Woodruff, a Black woman, was wrongfully arrested in Detroit following a false facial recognition match, and suffered maltreatment while eight months pregnant. Woodruff is not alone; at least seven people in the U.S., nearly all of whom were Black, were wrongfully arrested due to facial recognition mismatches.

What makes education leaders think that bringing this technology into schools will yield only benefits?

While surveillance technology in schools is thought to remove human bias, the algorithms instead reproduce systemic biases against people of color, immigrants, LGBTQIA+ people, women, and children.

Reliance on cameras and biometric surveillance to maintain discipline undermines the quality of the student experience and weakens relationships n schools. When technology becomes the default method for monitoring behavior, it can redirect teachers from personally interacting with students — a practice much more effective in identifying potential threats to student safety.

New York lawmakers must pass a full legislative ban on biometric surveillance in schools. This would protect all students from the harms of biometric surveillance, which disproportionately impacts marginalized groups and fosters an environment of mistrust and discrimination.

The same technologies that lead to wrongful arrests should be not tracking students. Lawmakers must ban the scan in New York schools.

 

n THIS GUEST ESSAY reflects the views of Reagan Razon, a Duke University junior and research intern at the New York City-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

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