More Schools Discard Student Privacy in Elusive Quest for Safety


As efforts increase to protect school safety in the wake of high-profile school shootings like those in Parkland and Sandy Hook, so do data collection efforts by states and schools that significantly undermine student privacy. A recent article by Education Week outlined several of these efforts across the nation.

Particularly disturbing are efforts to monitor students’ social media posts and combine them with the myriad of other data collected on students regarding behavior, discipline, legal encounters, and family status to try to predict violent or suicidal behavior. The Florida Stop Common Core Coalition covered such an effort by the Miami-Dade public schools back in 2015, then called the Campus Shield Initiative, quoting from the program’s website:

One major recent development in preventative policing efforts is the use of social media by police to circumvent threats. The use of social media in school crime prevention is particularly relevant, considering the rise of Internet threats as precursors to school violence. With little effort, police are able to access information posted on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or other social media sites.  
In order to evaluate the effectiveness of the Campus Shield package, experimental testing will be conducted, which will also contribute knowledge to the field about the impact of such complex interventions. Campus Shield, however, effectively integrates data from RMS, CAD, and MFR, along with data from other law enforcement agencies (including local, county, federal, and state); visitor access and video surveillance records; the M-DCPS Blackboard Connect system; M-DCPS student records; Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers; and social media. This integration of data from multiple information sources presents a major departure from “business as usual” for police agencies and many school districts. [Emphases added]

However, this initiative seems to have failed as the link is no longer active, and WestEd, a close partner of the American Institutes for Research (AIR), was supposed to have completed a study on this program in 2017, though there is still nothing on their website. This is despite receiving millions of dollars in U.S. Department of Justice grants via the National Institute of Justice.

Current efforts after the Parkland shooting, according to a public records review by Education Week, include collecting data on millions of Florida youth. However, student state and federal data privacy laws seem to be preventing officials from sharing this sensitive data, despite the fact that some laws like the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) are very weak after being gutted by the Obama administration. Florida drastically cut back their number of data elements in the summer of 2018 and has had problems choosing the company that will do the massive social media monitoring that will still be part of the project despite the failure of the Miami-Dade effort.

Although the data collection isn’t quite as extensive as in the Sunshine State, many other states and school districts are making massive efforts to collect social media data. Social Sentinel claims that it is in “thousands of school districts in 30 states,” including 15 in Florida. According to Education Week, social media posts flagged by this company include a tweet about a woman’s cat in Texas, posts about the movie “Shooter,” the local university basketball team’s “shooting clinic,” and many other innocuous posts.

The company Securly is combining the social media posts with predictive analytics attempting to warn schools and parents of what their students might do based on those posts:

When Securly launched in 2013, its lone offering was a web filter to block students’ access to obscene and harmful content. The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act requires most schools to use such tools.

A year later, though, Securly also began offering “sentiment analysis” of students’ social media posts, looking for signs they might be victims of cyberbullying or self-harm.

In 2016, the company expanded that analysis to students’ school email accounts, monitoring all messages sent over district networks. It also created an “emotionally intelligent” app that sends parents weekly reports and automated push notifications detailing their children’s internet searches and browsing histories, according to a presentation delivered at the conference.

The Lockport, N.Y., school district is starting to test a new facial and object recognition software program called Aegis to flag 10 types of guns and recognize people who have a violent record attempting to enter school facilities. Parents and privacy advocates are concerned not only about privacy but also about the effectiveness of this experimental program.

Another company called Gaggle, “monitors the digital content created by nearly 5 million U.S. K-12 students. That includes all their files, messages, and class assignments created and stored using school-issued devices and accounts.” Education Week’s interview of the CEO noted him saying:

It’s just the way the world works now, said Gaggle CEO Jeff Patterson.

“Privacy went out the window in the last five years,” he said. “We’re a part of that. For the good of society, for protecting kids.”

Many groups across the spectrum — from Education Liberty Watch in comments to the federal School Safety Commission, the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, and the ACLU — have all been concerned about the privacy implications of these and similar efforts. Two attorneys from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law had far more sensible recommendations:

This is not to say that schools should never look at students’ Facebook posts. But they should generally do so only when there is a reason — for example, when a student or parent has flagged concerning behavior or when the school is investigating online harassment or bullying. Every school must have in place policies available to parents, teachers and students specifying when it will look at social media postings. Such policies should be narrowly tailored to avoid impinging on the privacy and free speech rights of students, and they should limit the sharing of data with third parties and include procedures for deleting information when a child graduates or leaves the school, as well as safeguards to ensure that children of color are not unfairly targeted.

Regardless of political persuasion, we should remember the maxim attributed to Ben Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” We cannot give up the essential liberties identified by our brilliant Founders and defended at great cost by so many generations — including those that fought in the D-Day invasion, for which we just concluded the 75th anniversary. Denying this incredible legacy and instead leaving our children and grandchildren with the inheritance of living in a surveillance state would be a historic tragedy. We cannot let this happen!

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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