CREDIT: Screen grab from Project Baltimore video
After schools and businesses across the country shut down in February and March in an attempt to stop the spread of Wuhan coronavirus, millions of office workers, parents, students, and teachers were forced to quickly become familiar with virtual meeting technologies such as Zoom and Google hangouts as school districts transitioned to virtual learning environments. There was a big learning curve for everyone, and in the early weeks of the shutdown numerous virtual meeting mishaps made the news – hackers took over some meetings, reporters’ spouses inadvertently made nude appearances on live TV, and more.
On the other hand, we learned that Hollywood stars and news anchors really do look just like us when they don’t have professional hair and makeup artists at the ready, and we entertained ourselves by examining the home decor of those same stars, news anchors, and people like Dr. Anthony Fauci as shown in their Zoom/Skype appearances and doing a bit of psychoanalyzing.
In the world of virtual school, however, there’s a very risky flip side to that window into someone else’s home, as Baltimore mom Courtney Lancaster found out.
Lancaster’s son, a 5th grader and Boy Scout who’s conscientiously working toward the rank of Eagle Scout, has taken three levels of archery classes and learned to shoot Airsoft and BB guns/rifles. His archery equipment and Airsoft and BB guns/rifles are stored in his room on a pegboard. After his BB gun was spotted during a recent virtual school meeting, a screenshot was taken and sent to the school safety officer with a concern that the “weapon was not secured,” the school safety officer contacted police, and police “felt a home visit was warranted.”
According to emails Lancaster provided to a Baltimore television station, school officials also felt her son was in violation of the district’s weapons policy “because he could not ‘bring’ weapons to school, just as he could not ‘bring’ weapons to virtual class.”
School officials did not fill out some type of violations report and contact Lancaster (as one would hope officials would do if a violation happened on a school campus), apparently believing a surprise visit from law enforcement was the better route.
A police cruiser pulled up to her home June 1 and here’s what happened next, as Lancaster told Fox Baltimore:
“I had no idea what to think. I’ve never been in any legal trouble whatsoever. I’ve never had any negative encounter with law enforcement,” said Courtney. “I had no idea. I really didn’t know what to think.”
“So, I answered the door. The police officer was, he was very nice. He explained to me that he was coming to address an issue with my son’s school,” Courtney told Project Baltimore. “And then explained to me that he was here to search for weapons, in my home. And I consented to let him in. And then I, unfortunately, stood there and watched police officers enter my 11-year-old son’s bedroom.”
Courtney was told someone had seen the guns in her son’s bedroom during a Google Meet class on his laptop.
It’s not clear whether that “someone” was the teacher, another student, or another student’s parent.
After about 20 minutes the officers left, having found no violations, no laws broken, and no danger present. But, Lancaster says:
“I felt violated as a parent, for my child, who’s standing there with police officers in his room, just to see the fear on his face,” she said.
Lancaster, a Navy veteran, is demanding answers from the school district and asked to see the screenshot that led to the investigation. Administrators say she’s “not entitled” to see it since it’s not part of her son’s permanent record. It’s a good thing it’s not a part of a permanent record, but how is a parent not entitled to see the evidence that led to law enforcement officers showing up at her door? How is she to know that the screenshot will not be used to railroad someone else? Should educators be scrutinizing what’s shown in the background of each student’s image, or should they be focusing on teaching? Obviously if a teacher witnesses someone physically harming or threatening a student action should be taken, but where do we draw the line?
“It’s absolutely scary to think about,” Courtney said. “Who are on these calls? Who do we have viewing your children and subsequently taking these screenshots that can be sent anywhere or used for any purpose?”
“So, what are the parameters? Where are the lines drawn? If my son is sitting at the kitchen island next to a butcher block, does that constitute a weapon? It’s not allowed at school, right? So, would my home then be searched because he’s sitting next to a butcher block,” Courtney said. “I feel like parents need to be made aware of what the implications are, what the expectations are.”
Cam Edwards at our sister site Bearing Arms offered some suggestions for parents whose children attend virtual school and participate in online meetings:
If I had no choice but to send my kid to virtual school, I think I’d be disabling their camera before class started. In a pinch, I might invest in one of those green screens that attaches to the back of a chair to block the prying eyes of teachers or principals who might be tempted to use class time to engage in a bit of domestic surveillance. Either way, I’d do everything possible to prevent my child’s educators from invading my privacy under the guise of public education.
In addition to those suggestions, I’d also suggest that parents be aware of their rights and know that without something signed by a judge they’re not required to allow their home or vehicle or anything to be searched by law enforcement officers. Lancaster would have been within her rights to tell the officers she’d happily speak to them on her front porch but that she would not consent to a search – or to simply (and politely) inform them to come back with a warrant.
Lancaster’s interview with Fox Baltimore can be viewed below.