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Safeguarding Our Children': British Parents Shocked to Hear of Cameras in School Lavatories, Changing Rooms

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"The cameras are nowhere near the toilet cubicles"

(Photo: AP)

(TheBlaze/AP) -- At the King Ecgbert School in Sheffield, teens who go to the loo are never really alone - video cameras are inside all 12 bathrooms.

Citing findings gathered via freedom-of-information requests, privacy activists Wednesday identified King Ecgbert as one of more than 200 high schools across Britain that have installed surveillance cameras in bathrooms or locker rooms.

The group behind the report, Big Brother Watch, said a powerful watchdog is needed to ensure that students' privacy is protected.

The report "will come as a shock to many parents," said director Nick Pickles. "Schools need to come clean about why they are using these cameras and what is happening to the footage."

Lesley Bowes, King Ecgbert's principal, argued that the cameras help keep her students safe.

"It's a way of safeguarding our children," Bowes insisted.  She described her school's cameras - whose footage is reviewed only if there is suspicion of wrongdoing - as useful anti-bullying tools.  And she rejected any suggestion that the recording captures the students' most intimate activities, saying the cameras monitor just the doors.

"The cameras are nowhere near the toilet cubicles," she said.

A total of 207 high schools across England, Wales and Scotland acknowledged installing cameras in bathrooms and locker rooms, according to Big Brother Watch, which sent freedom-of-information requests to nearly 4,100 schools in May.  That's roughly 90% of the schools that were surveyed.

While Bowes insisted the cameras monitor "only the doors" in her school, there are roughly 100,000 cameras installed in schools across Britain, according to the Telegraph, and it is unclear where exactly all of them are placed, and whether any youngsters have been unwittingly taped in various states of undress.

To put that in perspective, some institutions have one CCTV camera for every five pupils, while one school in the northwest has apparently put 20 in its lavatories and locker rooms.

The Information Commissioner's Office, an independent authority in Britain whose duties include promoting privacy, said recording in toilets or changing rooms is legal, but it is only recommended in exceptional circumstances.

By contrast, in the U.S., the use of video cameras in schools is generally not allowed in places where there is a "reasonable expectation of privacy," such as bathrooms and locker rooms, according to the Justice Department.

"The cameras for the toilets are strategically placed in the doorways and directed toward the washbasins to identify any students if there are any reported incidents in these areas," said M. L. Litton, principal of the Wildern School in southern England, which has one camera in each of its 12 bathrooms.

"The images are not looked at unless there has been a reported problem and all images are deleted after a maximum of 30 days," she added.

Why put cameras in bathrooms in the first place?

Both King Ecbert and Wildern said the cameras weren't meant to tackle serious, violent problems, with Litton saying the cameras had mainly been installed to control "typical teenage stuff," such as smoking.

Pickles said he isn't necessarily against putting cameras in bathrooms, but argued that parents and children have to agree and there needs to be a robust watchdog authority to make sure youngsters' privacy isn't being invaded.

Bowes, the principal of King Ecgbert's, said she has received no complaints.

"Everyone knew about the cameras in the bathroom," said Jess Hogg, who graduated from King Ecgbert last year. In a series of Facebook messages, the 19-year-old said: "Personally it made me feel a little uncomfortable, but then safe at the same time.

"Uncomfortable because I didn't know where they were in the bathroom ... safe just in case (there) was any trouble in school."

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