Students’ Privacy Under Serious Threat in Era of School Shootings

July 30, 2018

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


As the number of school shootings increase, social media and mental health data are becoming very hot commodities. The federal School Safety Commission talked about how data sharing can be improved to prevent school violence at both of its July 11th and July 26th meetings. The trend in both meetings was to see the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as creating a barrier to sharing information that could have prevented tragedies like the Parkland shooting.

For example, as described in Education Week coverage of the July 26th meeting:

Clarence Cox III, the president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers, told the commission that fear of overstepping privacy laws can be impediment to information sharing.

“For law enforcement, this is one of the greatest hindrances facing intelligence gathering,” he said.

And Francisco Negrón, the chief legal officer at the National School Boards Association, argued that local districts would benefit from being able to use their discretion in deciding when to share information.

“Collaboration and communication with local law enforcement agencies is an essential part of these efforts. That is why school boards would benefit from eliminating barriers that hinder the collaboration of agencies providing services to children,” Negrón said.

Only one of the three witnesses at the July 11th hearing thought that inappropriate data sharing would hinder students from seeking mental health help. No one discussed the many other dangers of having behavioral and mental health data, especially subjective and often inaccurate screening data collected by minimally trained school personnel reside in longitudinal databases for life. These will be further discussed in a moment.

Another disturbing and related set of developments are the multiple ways that data privacy is being violated in the newly enacted Florida school safety law. These include requiring students to admit any mental health diagnoses, accurate or not, on their beginning-of-year school forms and the new law’s requirement to develop a “centralized integrated data repository and data analytics resource.”

The diagnosis disclosure mandate is a major medical privacy violation, potentially opening students to unwarranted and unwelcome scrutiny by school personnel and law enforcement. Additionally, psychiatric researchers have found that the vast majority (93 percent, according to one study) of the mentally ill will not become violent and that there is no good way to predict which patients will become violent.

The centralized data repository and analytics resource is a euphemism for Big Brother-style monitoring of social media, along with behavioral and mental health data, to allegedly stop threats before they happen. In addition to the grave privacy doubts raised by experts, there is no evidence that this approach even works.

The Miami-Dade school district, neighbor to the Broward district where the Parkland shooting happened, received a $4.6 million grant in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Justice to implement this scheme on a district level. There is now no trace of it on the Miami School Police website. The program ran through the end of 2017 and is being studied by education research company WestEd. Likely possibilities are that the study is not completed yet, the program was a complete failure, or they ran out of money and this new law will be a new funding source. It was extensively described before being taken down as follows:

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.

Campus shield…develop early warning signals of trouble, including individual students facing mental health issues that may need services. [All emphases added]

Social media monitoring would not have been necessary in the Parkland case. The Broward County School and Sheriff officials actually ignored written reports submitted by students who had received death threats from the shooter on Twitter. That is a felony. If those reports had been heeded and the perpetrator had been appropriately charged, he would have been arrested or had a mandatory mental health evaluation under Florida’s Baker Act, both of which would have caused him to fail the firearms background check and quite likely prevented the shooting.

Given the news that behavioral data joins other sensitive data in state longitudinal databases and that this data is being used and desired more and more for personality manipulation and workforce preparation, the addition of social media data and increased sharing with law enforcement is also very disturbing and problematic. This data can have grave implications for future post-secondary attendance, career path, military service, and gun ownership. FERPA and the health privacy law HIPAA are already very porous with sensitive data. The data sharing in these laws needs to be tightened, not further relaxed.

This attitude that government should be allowed to surveil innocent people in order to increase safety for rare events is incorrect and dangerous to privacy and liberty. Ben Franklin’s maxim, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” is very true. Citizens across Florida and the nation need to make their voices heard to their representatives and to the federal School Safety Commission at safety@ed.gov.


Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

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