In a case that could have broad repercussions for schools that use video cameras to monitor student activities, a former Berks County, Pa., student has sued her former school district, saying that her privacy was violated when an audio-equipped school bus camera recorded her conversation.
Morgan Keppley, 20, filed a lawsuit in Berks County Court seeking more than $50,000 in damages and requesting class action status to represent all students in the Twin Valley school district who rode camera-equipped buses.
The suit claims that Twin Valley used bus surveillance cameras to record actions and conversations of students, including Keppley.
“It is our understanding that is going on without anyone’s knowledge,” said Keppley’s attorney, Simon Grill.
The suit did not reveal the nature of Keppley’s recorded conversation, and Grill declined to discuss the matter. School officials are also currently unaware of the exact events that prompted the suit.
Named in the suit are the school district, school board members, and two bus companies that serve the district, Eschelman Transportation Inc. and George Krapf Jr. & Sons, according to the Associated Press.
According to district operations director Jeff Ploppert, every bus in the district is fitted with an opaque camera box. The cameras themselves are rotated from bus to bus, but children and drivers are not made aware of whether their bus is currently fitted with a camera.
All school buses have a posted sign saying that a surveillance camera might be on the bus at any time, Ploppert said.
Greg Eschelman of Eschelman Transportation said the district is in charge of the camera videotapes, which also capture audio. The bus companies install the boxes in the buses, but the school district is solely responsible for owning, operating, and monitoring the cameras, Ploppert concurred.
Eschelman defended the cameras’ function, saying they enhance safety and monitor pupil and driver conduct.
“I think these law firms should be ashamed of themselves for pursuing legal action against an item which is used solely to improve school bus safety,” Eschelman said.
Ploppert acknowledged that the cameras record both audio and video data, but he explained that when tapes are viewed, only the video portion is made available to the parties involved.
When asked whether the cameras have the capability to record audio data, Ploppert responded, “Anything is possible. But audio [surveillance] is not what we or any district uses the cameras for.”
According to Grill, however, the purpose for which someone uses the audio recording is legally immaterial.
“What matters is that they did not put it in by mistake,” he said. “The federal standard is that the only defense you have is if you put in by mistake. The word for that is ‘inadvertent violation.'”
Terry VanLear, president of the Reading-based bus company VanLear Equipment Inc., said his firm disconnected the camera audio upon hearing of the lawsuit against Twin Valley.
But he agreed with Eschelman, saying the cameras have fulfilled their mission to curb discipline problems.
“If the kids know the camera is on board and know they are going to be recorded, they won’t [misbehave],” he said.
Grill countered that the recordings violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment guarantees against illegal search and seizure.
According to her attorney, Keppley felt violated and wanted the district’s practice of recording audio on the cameras discontinued.
“We aren’t saying anything about the video,” Grill said. “We are contesting the audio. That falls under the [Pennsylvania] Wiretapping and Surveillance Control Act.”
The essence of the state wiretapping law is “that somebody cannot conduct audio electronic surveillance unless they have the permission of all parties to record conversations or communications,” Grill said.
That law also states that when a law enforcement agency seeks permission to tape an audio conversation, it must first get permission from the Pennsylvania Superior Court to do so.
“Maybe [Twin Valley] did get permission from the Superior Court to do this,” said Grill. “But I doubt it. They have not shown us that they did that yet.”
Alan Matchett is president of Alexandria, Va.-based Eyeseeu.com, a security consulting company that installs video cameras in schools.
“My first reaction to this is, ‘Who in the world would put audio [recording] in school buses?'” he said. “I wouldn’t go near audio, and most security professionals I know wouldn’t, either.”
Matchett agreed with Grill that, in most states, all parties must know that their voices are being recorded for it to be legal. He said the way most security cameras are connected to the recording device would make it very hard to record audio inadvertently.
“Usually there is a yellow connector for video and a white or red connector for audio, and they are usually clearly marked. You’d have to plug both of them in to do audio,” he said.
“In my opinion, there is really no reason for a school to use audio,” Matchett continued. “That is for formal investigations, and if that is the case, then law enforcement should be involved. There are liabilities associated with audio recording.”
The case has just gotten underway, all parties noted, and the “discovery” portion of the proceedingswherein attorneys for the prosecution and defense disclose pertinent documentation on the casehas yet to take place.
Grill said ideally he’d like to have the audio surveillance stopped. He said his client is seeking compensation for all people whose conversations were “intercepted, disclosed, or used.”
“The third thing is that we want to make people aware that there is an electronic surveillance device recording what their children are saying,” he said.
Twin Valley School District