In many schools, mobile phones are verboten. Now
principals in Queensland will have the option of banning recording
devices from the classroom as well.

Yesterday, the Queensland government issued a directive that “under the
authority of the Principal, and their requirement to maintain good
order and management of a school, an instruction can be issued to
students and parents that they are not to have in their possession a
recording device while in a classroom setting, or record conversations
or classroom activities without prior consent of the Principal”.

Students who breach this instruction “will be subject to the school’s
behaviour management plan”, wrote the Education Department in a letter to the Queensland Teachers’ Union.

This resolve comes “after consideration of legal advice” by the
Education Department following incidents at Emerald State High School,
where a
student took the unusual step of covertly taping hours of classroom and
other school conversations to prove bullying by staff (The Courier-Mail
ran the story in June this year).

It’s a “positive response”, says QTU regional organiser Barry Thomson. The secret
taping had created an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation
at the school” so the union took it up with the Department as a work health and safety issue. Teachers had proposed a stop
work meeting to protest recording in the classroom – this has now been headed off at the pass.

Labelling its response a “common sense approach”, the Education
Department also noted that the status of “tape recordings currently
held” by
them would “be reviewed because of the potential for risk of
inaccuracies arising from lack of contextualisation and/or the
inability to guarantee the authenticity of these recordings”.

But what is the legality of the student’s recordings in the first
place? In general, privacy policy says that covert recordings should
“only be
made where there are strong public policy reasons to do so”, says John
Corker, spokesman for the Australian Privacy Foundation. In certain
areas of
activity, covert recordings are illegal.

And in a situation analagous to that of Emerald State High School, NSW’s Workplace Video Surveillance Act “requires
that notices be put up if there’s to be any recording of the work
environment”. As for the question of what’s appropriate in the education environment,
there are other competing policy goals, “such as how far the rights of
students should extend within schools”, says Corker.

Interestingly, employers can apply for a “Covert Surveillance Authority” under the Workplace Video Surveillance Act
if they
suspect an employee is involved in unlawful activity while at
work. So could a parent or student apply to the Department of
Education for an exemption from a Principal’s decree where they
suspected bullying was taking place?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey