In Kathmandu’s schools, it’s not just teachers who are watching youSurveillance cameras have become ubiquitous in Kathmandu’s schools and colleges. But students and teachers say they come at the cost of personal freedoms.
For Aadarsh Singh, going to school every day where all the classrooms are monitored by a digital camera isn’t an unusual affair. After all, closed-circuit television, or CCTVs, have become commonplace in many of Kathmandu’s schools and colleges that have fixed cameras in classrooms, corridors, entrances and exits, and across school premises.
“I have had CCTV cameras in the classroom for as long as I can remember,” said Singh, who is an IT student at British College. “I feel weirdly accustomed to them.”
As the presence of CCTV cameras grows across the Kathmandu Valley, academic institutions are following suit. According to the Nepal Police, there are currently over 1,200 cameras watching the Valley streets, up from just around 400 last year. While the exact number of cameras in schools is difficult to come by, even cursory glances at the entrances of most schools will find at least one surveillance camera.
Although many students and teachers bemoan the presence of surveillance cameras, especially within the classroom, school administrators believe that the cameras help prevent unruly student behaviour, ensure security, and can even help students with their studies.
“Children can sometimes be disobedient and misbehave. CCTVs have helped us maintain some resistance towards such activities and even helped us keep a watch on valuables and school resources,” said Sahaji Panta, principal at the Dallu-based Swarnim High School, which has around 60 cameras on its premises.
When used in conjunction with other security measures, CCTVs are a great way for schools to reduce crime and ensure accountability, said Panta. And there are educational advantages to having cameras that record teachers and what they teach.
“When students are unable to attend classes, we are able to help them with the audio-visual footage of the classes they missed,” said Prakash Shrestha, acting principal at Xavier Academy, where there are around 40 cameras.
For Joey Foster Ellis, executive principal of The British College, safety concerns come first.
“As a principal, it's nice to have a third eye and always be able to double-check,” said Ellis. “There will always be this belief that big brother is watching, but I look at the safety and security of students first. I need to make sure that the students are being looked after. If there is an issue I need to make sure I have the right to ensure what happened.”
But students and teachers are more worried about the effects that such constant surveillance can have on the learning atmosphere.
“Cameras do make me feel safe, but at the same time, it makes me feel like I'm being watched all the time,” said Inus Purkoti, a student at the Namuna College of Fashion Technology which has 25 to 30 cameras. “I feel both safe and unsafe. As a girl, sometimes you have to fix something, maybe your clothes or your hair, it’s discomforting to know that someone could be watching.”
Even Singh, who has gotten used to the cameras in school, equates them to a restriction on personal freedoms.
“It feels ironic that schools would install a device that limits the capabilities of what students are supposed to do,” he said.
Earlier in December, Kathmandu University’s attempts to install CCTVs in its classrooms was roundly criticised by students who said such a system has the potential to limit creativity and stifle discussion.
“We do understand that surveillance for the safety of the university’s assets is a priority to the university, however, classrooms are supposed to be a private sphere for the students and teachers to have an open debate,” says a statement presented by the students to Kathmandu University’s dean. “Being students in the digital era, we have an understanding of how surveillance can affect the environment of a classroom—not only within its premises but outside of it as well.”
According to Sudhamsu Dahal, an assistant professor at the university, constant surveillance doesn’t just affect students but also teachers, who might not be comfortable holding free discussions while being watched.
“When you are in a classroom, both sanctioned and unsanctioned activities take place. Not only do CCTVs affect the student’s abilities to debate in an open environment, but also affect the ability of the teachers to facilitate such debates,” said Dahal. “How can one create a natural teaching-learning atmosphere when they are under constant scrutiny?”
Students have also raised concerns about the use of cameras to enforce unwritten and arbitrary guidelines to regulate student behaviour. This doesn’t just extend to the schools but also to parents. Swarnim High School, for example, plans to provide parents with access to CCTV footage from inside classrooms via a mobile app, according to the school’s principal.
“Some parents can use CCTVs to force children to follow an archaic code of values, and deprive them of simple childhood experiences, which are integral for overall personality development, such as talking to the opposite gender or playing harmless pranks,” said Dahal.
When schools instal new cameras, students are often not informed that they will be under constant scrutiny. There is also little clarity on how the footage will be collected, stored, distributed and accessed. Many students and teachers are concerned about how schools will ensure the safety of the data and prevent its misuse.
“We have a privacy law in Nepal and a strong constitutional provision which guarantees the right to privacy and freedom of expression. We also have a supreme court ruling that demands that people be notified when they are under CCTV surveillance,” said Dahal.
There is research from across the world that speaks to the detrimental psychological effects of constantly being watched. A number of studies have concluded that surveillance can lead to reduced creativity and increased stress.
“Installing cameras to monitor student behaviour can have psychological impacts on students that can lead to them hiding things from parents, feelings of mistrust, becoming emotionally withdrawn, and losing independence and autonomy,” psychologist Dr Ganga Pathak told the Post. “It can also have adverse effects on their cognitive development.”
Students and faculty also point to the fact that children will misbehave and indulge in all kinds of behaviour, which might not always be positive. Such instances provide opportunities for learning from their mistakes and becoming better people, say teachers.
“But if a juvenile commits any kind of delinquency and the CCTV footage surfaces 20 years later, it might hamper their future,” said Dahal. “CCTV in schools will compromise the quality of life for individuals.”
Some school administrators themselves seem to realise the drawbacks of attempting to watch their students at all times.
“As a teacher, I believe students should be given the freedom to creatively express themselves and if monitoring becomes as expansive and evasive as in the Orwellian world, it has the potential to pose a threat,” said Ruchin Singh, a teacher at St Xavier’s college. “A line should be drawn to effectively examine both privacy and security.”
Administrators like Panta too envision a future where such surveillance is unnecessary.
“While there are advantages to using CCTV cameras, kids need to be able to become kids—to play with others, ride a bike, climb trees, and be mischievous. Kids need that balance,” said Panta. “Constant monitoring has the potential to upset that balance.”