Photo credit: US Department of Education via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Senate GOP’s “School Safety” Bill Would Imperil Student Privacy, Expand Police State


In the midst of the impeachment charade, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and a number of his GOP colleagues introduced a bill to address mass shootings. However, privacy groups, particularly those who advocate for student privacy, question the larger effect of the bill. Is it really about mass shootings? Or is it just building a bigger, more invasive police state?   

Cornyn’s bill, the RESPONSE Act, is co-sponsored by Republican Sens. McSally (Ariz.), Ernst (Iowa), Tillis (N.C.), Capito (W. Va.), and Scott (S.C.). It has three major components: addressing unlicensed gun dealers and enhanced criminal penalties, developing crisis intervention and mental health services to include law enforcement, and increasing student safety.

The student safety provisions of the bill have the definite underpinnings of a dystopian surveillance state. They would require federally funded schools to monitor students’ online activity, including email, search history, and social media, and to identify behavior that could be perceived as a threat or result in “extreme violence.”  

The bill further authorizes internet service providers and online platforms to share student information with law enforcement.

Cornyn’s bill, though, isn’t the first of its kind to expand the police state by increasing student surveillance. Before the RESPONSE Act, there was the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, passed by the Florida legislature and signed into law by then Governor Rick Scott on March 9, 2018.

One of that bill’s provisions garnered little widespread media attention before the bill was signed into law despite putting student privacy in the crosshairs.

The Florida law increased the sharing of information between sheriffs’ offices, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the Florida Department of Children and Families, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and community behavioral providers “…to better coordinate services and provide prevention or intervention strategies.”  The law also codified the Office of Safe Schools within the Florida Department of Education to “…coordinate to collect and share data from social media.”

The Florida law also funded a mobile reporting system, FortifyFL, in which students and the community can anonymously report suspicious behavior or activity that is immediately directed to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

But here’s the rub: violence prediction is not supported by evidence. Ora Tanner, an education technology fellow at the Aspen Institute, reported, “No evidence-based research has demonstrated that a data-driven surveillance system…will be effective in preventing school violence.”

A report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded, “Characteristics of violent offenders in schools identified by NSSC show that intervention by administrators, teachers, and staff are more likely to be effective in identifying students at risk of committing an offense than most forms of technology.”

Yet under Cornyn’s proposed bill, the amount of data that would be collected by the federal and state government is massive, especially considering that in 2017, there were approximately 57 million students enrolled in 10,000 public schools. Gathering this amount of personal and private information is an administrative and financial boondoggle.  

In Florida, an open records request by Education Week included, “…more than 2.5 million records related to Floridians who received involuntary psychiatric examinations, records for over 9 million people placed in foster care, diagnosis and treatment records for substance abusers, unverified criminal reports of suspicious activity, reports on students who were bullied and harassed because of their race or sexual orientation, and more.”

Not only is collecting this information ineffective, it creates a myriad of other concerns.

First, information collected can result in a student who poses no risk to be falsely flagged. Recently in Florida, the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office received tips indicating the threat of a school shooting on Snapchat. An investigation followed, including a search of the student’s home where it was discovered that the child didn’t have access to weapons, didn’t make a threat, and didn’t even own a cell phone. How, when, or even if that child’s name and other personal information was deleted from the state database is unknown.

Additionally, civil rights and mental health advocates have raised concerns that students with mental health or psychiatric disabilities and African American males would be disproportionately flagged as threats based on higher incidences of disciplinary actions, despite research finding that people with mental health disabilities are no more likely to be involved in gun violence than anyone else.

Studies have shown that people with disabilities, including mental health disabilities, are far more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators, and that mental health disabilities are not predictors of gun violence. Further, there is no evidence that students with discipline problems at school go on to become school shooters.

Finally, IT personnel responsible for gathering and storing student information, including sensitive personal information, are also in charge of keeping it safe. But, can they? Schools are an extremely attractive target to outside hackers. Data associated with minors is worth a fortune on the black market.

Not only is student data at risk of being stolen and sold, but there is also a rare but real risk that hackers with personal student information could make physical contact with a child. In a culture that is seeing more and more violence against children, it’s a valid concern.

In the end, despite all the red flags, the question still remains: is it about guns, or is it a bigger, more invasive police state?

Peter Greene noted in a recent Forbes article, “…if you want to erode civil liberties and traditions of privacy, it’s best to start with people who don’t have the political power to fight back. Children are ideal — not only can’t they fight back, but they grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal to live under constant surveillance. For their own safety, of course.”

As they say, there’s your sign.

Photo credit: US Department of Education via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Lisa Hudson

Lisa Hudson is a founding member of Arizonans Against Common Core and an advocate of classical Christian education and the protection of student privacy. She graduated from Michigan State University School of Law in 1996 and is an active member of the State Bar of Michigan.

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