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CCTV in classrooms: Establishing a violence-free school culture

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE Delhi government is setting up 1.5 lakh CCTV cameras in all the classrooms of its 1028 schools and has recommended LED screens for each school principal for live viewing of the video feed allegedly to provide safety for children.

“In today’s environment, when children step outside the house, parents are anxious about whether their child will return home safely. With this CCTV project, they can check during the day whether their child is safely inside the classroom,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is reported to have said.

Indeed, because there is a CCTV camera, he said, “it provides evidence to nab a culprit who commits a crime in schools within hours”.

While the primary purpose of CCTV cameras is the safety of children, the Delhi government has many other reasons to justify this project. “It would make schools accountable to parents every minute and if they found anything wrong in the class, they could now question – a true sign of democracy,” the Chief Minister is reported to have said. It would also help discipline children who disrupt class, skip class or go home.

The government has also assured that the plan was well-thought-out and that Standard Operating Procedures had been put in place. It would be available only through a secure password given to the parents on their smartphones.


Children’s safety, teachers’ accountability is still a problem


The Delhi government, unlike many other state governments, has micro-managed and introduced several reforms within the school system in the past couple of years. It has built new classrooms, added new furniture, whitewashed walls, repaired school buildings. School buildings now look like schools and children look like students wanting to study.


The School Management Committees as per the Right of Children for Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (SMC) have been invigorated and there is evidence of greater interaction between parents and teachers. More recently on July 1, 2019, the Delhi government launched a ‘Happiness Curriculum’ with lofty ideals of overhauling the present education system to produce“good human beings” in the august presence of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, with educationists from all over the country.

It seems that in spite of all its efforts, the government continues to grapple with the problem of children’s safety, teachers’ accountability to parents, child abuse and excessive discipline of children and finds the installation of CCTV cameras a reasonable solution.


Policing is not sustainable


The persistence of violence, abuse, discrimination and punishment of children in schools is to be addressed by giving space and a voice to children to tell against all forms of abuse and also in preparing the entire school staff to listen to children and respect them. The solution lies in establishing a school culture that is free of violence. In the long run, such an effort is far more sustainable than instilling fear among the school teachers that they are under watch every minute. Policing teachers through CCTV cameras is no solution.

It is but natural that children are sometimes naughty, mischievous or disobedient. All children are not alike and for some children, such behaviour is so much a part of growing up.

Several studies have shown the need to counsel such children, give them additional responsibilities, motivate them and channelize their energy towards being constructive. The solution also lies in developing a positive engagement (and not discipline) with such children. Surveillance and creating evidence of their behaviour in the classroom through CCTV cameras may prompt children towards increased aggression, defiance and indiscipline and the measure could prove to be counter-productive.


Understanding adolescence


Adolescent girls, as well as their classmates (both boys and girls) in a co-ed school, interact with one another as peers and friends. Knowing that every move of theirs will be scrutinized by their parents (even if it is not shared) will make them self-conscious. They will lose out on interacting with their peers from a different caste, class, religion and gender backgrounds. They will act with more restraint and be less spontaneous.

Children could come under tremendous control of their parents if they disapprove of the behaviour of their children in the classrooms. Having CCTV cameras would harm a healthy relationship among classmates.

Girls would be unduly affected when they are constantly under watch by their parents. They may disapprove of how they conduct themselves with classmates especially males. Indeed, when pictures of girls in the classrooms are easily available, adolescent girls would be at risk of stalking and voyeurism. It is a violation of their bodily integrity and dignity.


Teacher-student relationship must develop organically


The classroom is a cherished space for the teacher and her students, built on a continuous interaction over the entire academic session. This relationship between the teacher and her students develops organically and must be allowed to do so. Teachers need freedom of speech and expression in developing a lecture and their autonomy as a professional in the classroom must be valued. It is only then that a healthy interaction is established between the teacher and the students and learning is possible.

A public interest petition in the Supreme Court to “quash and set aside the government decision of installation of CCTV cameras” on the ground that “cognitive freedom is essential for the exercise of expressive freedom” must be reiterated. This “every minute” surveillance through CCTV cameras has an immediate effect on the teacher and the child and texture in the classroom. It would be so difficult for a child to ignore the CCTV and pretend that it is not there.

A violation of the child rights convention and Puttaswamy

Installation of cameras violates Article 16 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, to which India is a signatory. It states that “No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family home or correspondence, or to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation”.

The installation of CCTV is also in violation of the Supreme Court verdict in Puttaswamywhich stated in para 509 (on the need to protect individuals from scrutiny), “individuals need a sanctuary where they can be free from societal control. The importance of such a sanctuary is that individuals can drop the mask, desist for a while from projecting on the world the image they want to be accepted as themselves, an image that may reflect the values of their peers rather than the realities of their natures”. Are classrooms not a sanctuary where children can enjoy freedom?

The nine-judge bench in Puttaswamy, while holding the right to privacy fundamental to the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, further reiterated that the privacy for children would “require special protection not just in the context of the virtual world, but also the real world”. Installation of CCTV cameras is a breach of that privacy.

Besides, the Supreme Court in various other cases, including the five-judge bench in Puttaswamy’s case (para 327), has stated that the Constitution must be read in the best interests of the child. The best interests of the child must be to enhance the civil liberties of the child, and ensure her growth is free from continuous supervision and control. In other words, the best interest of the child is to enhance her right to privacy. This right to privacy must include, as the Supreme Court put it, “repose”, “sanctuary” and “intimate decision”. This sanctuary is for protection against intrusive observation, such as CCTV cameras.


Building a democratic and inclusive school culture


More than any other argument in favour of installing CCTV cameras, the one with an emphasis on safety of children has been particularly strong. Of course, the concern for the safety of children when they are being bullied or discriminated against is genuine. They should be free of physical and sexual abuse and mental trauma. In the absence of a “safe school” norm, children do become victims and it could also be fatal. The installation of CCTV cameras, however, far from providing safety to children would only do greater harm. It is invasive, violates personal dignity, against freedom of expression, curbs an atmosphere for learning.

The installation of CCTV cameras certainly does not serve the interest of the school, its teachers and students, the parents and the community nor does it improve the system of education. Fostering surveillance, suspicion and policing and spending crores on finding a technological solution only defeats the purpose of education.

Instead, the government should invest in strengthening the processes of building healthy school culture, that is democratic and inclusive, where teachers enjoy freedom and autonomy to be innovative and creative, where children realise their fullest potential even as they grow up with values of citizenship and equality.  All this has to be embedded in establishing trust at all levels in the education system. Surveillance is contrary to our constitutional principles of individual freedom and dignity and unsafe for democracy.


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