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Schools grapple with how to handle air drones

The school district in McAllen, Texas, announced last week it will purchase a drone to survey its 33 school campuses, including parking lots and other areas where students congregate.

But two New Jersey school districts did just the opposite last week, banning drone flights on school property. The varying responses to this newly ascendant technology come against a backdrop of new overall drone-use regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration that took effect Aug. 29.

The Texas district's drone, at a cost of $10,000, will be purchased and operated by the McAllen police department’s school district office. Three additional officers will be hired as part of a security upgrade for the district’s campuses, said Sam Saldivar, Jr., president of the McAllen Independent School District board. 

“This is an administrative decision made by the superintendent and based on a recommendation by the police department, “ Saldivar said. “The police department will apply for the license required by the [Federal Aviation Administration] to operate a drone."

The district is among the first in the nation to embrace drones for observing activities on campus and comes as the Federal Aviation Administration grapples with the use of what are technically referred to as unmanned aerial devices.

In May, the FAA enacted a new regulation that would allow educational institutions to operate a model aircraft as long as it was as a hobby or recreational and not used for any sort of compensation.

But it did not address the use of drones for security and scrutiny of the student body. Privacy issues could arise if the implementation and use is not handled correctly, said Bernard Bell, a professor in Rutgers School of Law School who reviews property and privacy law.

“Drones are a technology that, if the school is going to use them, they should have privacy protections that are attendant,” Bell said. “If they have something recording students on school campus, they have to make some provision for that material not to become public unless it’s relevant to something that is important, such as a legal proceeding.”

Bell said there is also a potential issue regarding the recording made by the drone.

“There would have to be something to address how long these recording are kept and they have to make people aware that there is this drone filming them,” Bell said. “There are privacy implications here that the district has to deal with.”

Privacy issues have been a main part of the discussion regarding the regulation and use of private and commercial drones and how they are regulated by the FAA.

In the case of public use by law enforcement, the agency has shown a leniency and generally issues waivers of authorization.

While the Texas school district was pushing ahead with plans for drone surveillance, the two New Jersey districts announced their ban on drones. Districts in Fort Lee and East Rutherford now prohibit the launch, flight or landing of drones on school property.

The East Rutherford school district cited safety concerns in its prohibition.

“The Board of Education recognizes the operation of an unmanned aircraft system on school grounds or flying an unmanned aircraft on or over school grounds presents a public-safety issue, as school grounds are populated many hours of the day by students, staff members, parents and community members,” the adopted policy said.

The policy leaves open the option to allow drones “for an approved school district purpose.”

Strauss Esmay Associates, the school consultancy group that developed the strategy for the district, did not respond to an interview request.