Lawmakers weigh school bus surveillance

HARRISBURG - September 30, 2008 - Some buses already use silent video cameras, but questions have arisen about whether recording sound violates the law, which requires the consent of the person being recorded.

State Rep. Don Walko, D-Allegheny, said his legislation would allow school boards to authorize audio taping while requiring notification of students and parents and placing signs on buses stating audio taping is taking place.

"There is a lack of consistency among district attorneys throughout Pennsylvania, so again what we are doing is clarifying what we believe should be the law and putting in the safeguards," Walko said at a House judiciary committee hearing Tuesday in Pittsburgh.

Supporters, including the Pennsylvania School Bus Association, say audio recordings can help reduce bullying and sexual harassment and give a more complete account of an incident than video alone.

In 2006, state police asked Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. to determine whether Laidlaw Transit Inc. had illegally audio taped students on buses in two districts. Zappala found Laidlaw had no intent to break the law, and said he wouldn't prosecute bus audio taping cases if they followed the requirements now part of Walko's legislation.

The issue has cropped up elsewhere, with some prosecutors finding audio recordings were illegal.

A suburban Philadelphia district decided against using the audio-recording feature of its school bus cameras because of confusion over its legality.

The Pennsylvania State Police, which conducts annual school bus inspections and unannounced spot checks, also supports the legislation, saying audio and video recording deters unruly behavior.

The state School Boards Association supports the legislation's intent, but not Walko's bill, according to written testimony presented Tuesday.

Instead, it supports modifying the existing wiretap law to say that people cannot have an expectation of privacy in places that aren't typically private if plainly visible video and audio recording equipment is in use, along with signs indicating such use.

Walko said he's unaware of any opposition. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said it has not taken a position on the bill.

The legislation is being offered both as a bill and as an amendment to another bill, but Walko noted the Legislature only has three session days remaining. If it doesn't move this session, Walko said he would reintroduce it.

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