As schools across the country remake themselves as surveillance sites, installing facial recognition and other high-tech monitoring devices to detect shooters, the laws governing public transparency are more important than ever. So when a bill that would permit schools to discuss critical safety issues without public input was proposed in Pennsylvania, criticism was swift.
The bill, which has now been passed by the state house and will continue onto the state senate, amends the state’s Sunshine Act requiring public agencies to hold public meetings when taking official actions, particularly when taxpayer money is involved. Under SB 1078, public agencies are exempt from this requirement when discussing “emergency preparedness, protection of public safety and security of all property” if there’s a chance that disclosing the info publicly “would be reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety or preparedness or public protection.”
That includes schools.
Currently, school districts across the country are signing multi-million dollar contracts with surveillance companies, enhancing their security systems in the hopes of preventing tragedy. In New York, face recognition tied to criminal databases. In New Mexico, sensors that respond to the sound of gunfire. As schools introduce tools originally built for military and police settings, will parents and students be left in the dark while classrooms begin to resemble high security facilities?
“It’s a difficult balancing act,” Erik Arneson, Executive Director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, tells Gizmodo. “It’s easy to say everything’s off limits or to say everything’s public. It’s really hard to write open meetings laws or open records laws that really get the balance right.”
Arneson explains that if the bill is passed, school officials can opt for closed-door meetings with security companies if they choose, but must still notify the public that a session will be private and provide some justification. “They [also] cannot take any final official action during executive session,” he explained. “It is a discussion-only kind of process.”
When it comes to spending tax dollars, however, public officials must make that decision in open session. But therein lies the dilemma: nothing in the bill ensures that these public sessions will accurately convey what was discussed in private meetings with companies (minus sensitive information).
“It is fairly common for agencies in Pennsylvania to have some fairly detailed discussions in executive session, [then] when it comes time to reconvene in an open meeting and have a vote, there is, with some regularity, quite a bit less discussion at the public meeting.”
Consider New Mexico. This year, an elementary school there began installing sensors that detect the sound of gunfire, and can be programmed to respond by locking doors automatically. A horrific worst case scenario emerges: students in the same room as a shooter could be locked in with their attacker once the sensors respond. Without transparency, the public might not even know such a potentially dangerous flaw is built into the system protecting their children until its too late.
A representative for Senator Scott Martin, who co-sponsored SB1078, explained their belief in the necessity of closed session meetings. (Senator Robert Tomlinson, who introduced the bill, didn’t respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.)
One example Martin’s rep provided is the regular security audits done by state police. Police audit schools, identifying weak points and mapping out emergency response protocols and secondary locations to house survivors: critical information that could risk lives if shared publicly. School officials may want to discuss these audit results with companies, who would then provide tools to bolster defenses, such as security cameras in blindspots. The bill was made with these discussions in mind, the representative explained.
So how can schools balance protecting students with informing them?
“We get a lot of calls from people complaining about their local government bodies making excessive use of executive sessions,” Mary Catherine Roper, Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told Gizmodo over email. “School emergency planning seems a good reason to have executive session.”
“But, this new provision is written very broadly and there’s a risk it would be misapplied to keep secret any discussion of ‘security of ... property,’ which could extend well past emergency preparedness. If this passes, the citizenry would be smart to press their local government boards to adopt resolutions creating very specific parameters for when they will and won’t use executive session.”
As schools turn to surveillance to protect students, parents will have to make changes to protect them from this technology as well.