School safety surveillance raises student privacy concerns

Student privacy advocates are asking the Federal Commission on Student Safety to include appropriate privacy “guardrails” around school safety measures to ensure that students’ personal information and equity are protected.

At the first commission listening session held on June 6 at the U.S. Education Department, Amelia Vance, the director of education privacy of the Future of Privacy Forum, told the commission that school safety procedures should exercise discretion when using surveillance measures as a tactic to reduce or prevent future school violence.

“As technology has evolved, schools have an increased ability to monitor students continually, both in and out of the classroom,” she said. “Schools are using services such as social media monitoring, digital video surveillance linked to law enforcement, and visitor management systems to help protect their students. These can be effective tools; however, they can also harm students if there are not appropriate measures in place to regulate and guide their use.”

Recent school safety proposals at the state level include surveillance of social media accounts to detect troubling behavior. Proponents of social media surveillance believe it helps track incidents of bullying, criminal activity including school threats, and suicide ideation.

For instance, Florida’s new law, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, creates a database combining information from social media, law enforcement, and social services agencies.

Additionally, a school safety plan in Texas proposes to combine local, state, and federal resources to scan and analyze students’ public social media posts, as well as “private or direct messages” and “Information exchanged in private chat groups [or] via text message,” Vance noted.

This comes after “recent perpetrators of mass shootings had left clues as to their potential homicidal or suicidal intent on publicly accessible social media sites in the months before committing their crimes,” according to the proposal, which intends to improve law enforcement’s ability to “identify, process and resolve” potential threats on social media.

‘Genuine threats to school safety’

While the surveillance is intended to protect students, it has unintended consequences, Vance told officials.

For one, research has shown that surveillance can undermine a student’s “sense of safety” and create a “prison-like environment where students feel big brother is always watching,” she said.

“Increased surveillance can also create a ‘permanent record’ that can limit a student’s future opportunities,” she added. “These effects can be mitigated by adopting privacy protections, such as those laid out in the Fair Information Practice Principles. … Any surveillance that is undertaken should have policies about what data is collected, why it is collected, and how the data will be used.”

She urged ED’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center to publish guidance and provide more technical assistance on this issue, and she told the commission to recommend that state and local programs or proposals to collect and analyze additional student data should be targeted at “the most serious threats” to school safety.

“If applied broadly to less serious violations of school rules, the programs could overwhelm school administrators with data, cast suspicion on students who show no signs of violent behavior, and fail to promptly identify individuals who pose genuine threats to school safety,” Vance noted.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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