MOST secondary schools have installed CCTV cameras to counter problems such as bullying and vandalism.
Cameras are also becoming a growing feature at primary level, but schools have been warned they may be in breach of data protection laws.
One second-level teacher took a challenge on data protection grounds when a camera was used as part of an investigation into an incident at a school.
Students protested at a second-level school last autumn when CCTV cameras were installed in the toilets in order to combat bullying.
Now, the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (ACCS) has provided its 91 members with legal advice surrounding the use of the cameras. A number of Vocational Education Committees have also issued advice to schools.
A key piece of advice is to consult with the school community, including students and parents, and to outline policy in relation to the use of the cameras. Where a camera is installed, there should be signs at the site explaining why it has been placed there.
The sign should be specific, and if the camera is to prevent bullying or for security reasons, that should be stated.
Schools have been told it is not generally justifiable to use CCTV images for monitoring staff performance or conduct.
If a school wants to make use of CCTV for such a purpose, it must be clearly outlined in the policy, and staff must be told in advance of any such use.
The advice has been drawn up after discussions between the office of the Data Protection Commissioner and lawyers acting on behalf of the ACCS.
ACCS general secretary Ciaran Flynn said the regulations in this area were strong and the Data Protection Commissioner took a very strong line.
Mr Flynn said one of the issues that arose was a recognition that video footage constituted data and fell within the remit of the legislation.
Schools were also told to limit access to the recording and monitoring to appropriate staff, while the guidelines cover right of access for students and staff to images captured by CCTV.
A lot of schools would have used Department of Education grants to install CCTV cameras, particularly to counter the growing problem of vandalism.
However, despite the trend toward the use of such cameras, privacy issues may still limit the right of a school to use them.
There was a major furore last November when the principal of Scoil Mhuire Community School in Clane, Co Kildare, installed cameras in student toilets to combat bullying and vandalism.
Following a two-day protest by students and parents, the cameras were withdrawn.
The Department of Education said while the use of CCTV was a matter for school boards of management, the use of cameras must be proportionate.
The department warned that using cameras to monitor areas where individuals would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as toilets, could be difficult to justify.