Every year when children return to school, parents wade through and sign a stack of forms. Buried in the middle is a form where you check off one box giving permission to have your son or daughter’s picture taken for a student ID and another for the school to take or use their photo if the media should need it. What if you discovered the school offered that photo to the police for a photo line up?
This is exactly what happened to one student at a Boston high school. Here are the facts. The student left the school and got on a public bus to return home. Later in the day, police allege that he robbed another student of his cell phone and ipod. The detective on the case went to the police officer at the school to see if he could obtain a student photo. This police officer, in turn, went to school staff who handed him the student ID, which had a photo, name and date of birth. The police did not have a search warrant and no one had asked for or received parental consent.
However, the background of the ID was quite different from other photos the detective had. So the police officer assigned to the school went back to school staff and asked for and received several more student photo IDs. These other students probably bore some resemblance to the suspected student (no doubt they were all male) and all their pictures had been taken in front of the same background. Again, there was no search warrant or parental notification or consent. The photos were enlarged and the names and birth dates were removed.
The victim made an identification, charges were filed and the case went to court. The judge in juvenile court barred the police and district attorney’s office from using the photo array as evidence saying the student had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” An appeal was filed and it was heard before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Last week, the court sent the case back to the juvenile court saying there wasn’t enough evidence presented in the case on how student ID cards are created and used in order for them to made a decision. “In ruling as he did, the judge made certain assumptions about the photograph that may well be correct, but evidence supporting the assumptions is not in the record before us,” Justice Margot Botsford wrote for a unanimous court.
After many well-publicised school shootings, beginning with Columbine in 1999, towns and cities across the U.S. began locating police officers in schools. Administrators, staff, parents and the community were worried about safety. Today, many schools have police or school resource officers located on school grounds. Unsurprisingly, when school resource officers are co-located they are often treated as fellow school staff. The boundaries can blur.
A parent’s job is to keep their child from harm. We do this because we love our children and know that while we can’t keep every hurt at bay, we can try to shield them from a great deal. When we sign those permission forms for a photo to be taken or used for media purposes, none of us imagine we are agreeing to let the police use those photos. Besides the student who the police suspected, there were 6 or 7 other students whose photo IDs were pulled by the resource officer and handed over to the detective. These students were guilty of nothing more than bearing a resemblance to the student suspected of robbery or having their picture taken in front of the same background. What if any of them had been mistakenly identified? For a parent to willingly agree to have their child’s photo in a police line up qualifies as putting their child in harm’s way.
Schools often take on the task of teaching students to be wary of sharing personal information on the internet, facebook or by texting. Parents often worry about their child’s personal information being used for some nefarious purpose but also know that a photo ID can benefit their child as well. We all recognize the need for the school to have information about our children. What should be our expectation of privacy?