School Climate & Safety

Digital Surveillance and School Safety: 5 Things Administrators Need to Know

By Benjamin Herold — June 12, 2019 7 min read
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Under intense pressure to prevent the next school shooting, K-12 leaders are deploying massive digital surveillance systems that vacuum up digital data and scan for possible warning signs.

But as Education Week recently reported, there are serious questions about whether such systems are effective. They also raise huge concerns about privacy and civil liberties, often thrusting school administrators into a vast ethical gray area. And when new digital surveillance technologies are implemented, they create a tremendous amount of new work—as well as potentially new liabilities—for schools already stretched thin by other demands.

So what are K-12 leaders to do?

First and foremost, talk about the common challenges they’re facing, experts said.

“This all requires enormous amounts of conversation, both at a national level and in local communities,” said Keith Krueger, the executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for school technology leaders. “These technologies make a lot of things possible. But are they wise?”

In that spirit, here are five big issues for district administrators to consider when deciding whether and how to deploy new digital surveillance technologies.

1. The pressure to act is intense—and understandable.

Frank DeAngelis understands the devastation wrought by school shootings. He was the principal at Colorado’s Columbine High when student gunmen killed 13 people there in 1999, and he’s been an active supporter of other school leaders who have experienced similar tragedies in the two decades since.

Safety has to come first, DeAngelis said.

“We have to do everything in our power to protect kids and schools,” he said. “That trumps any other concerns.”

It’s a message that many school boards and district leaders are hearing from worried parents and lawmakers alike.

It’s also a message that is amplified by leaders in the booming school-security industry. Take, for example, Gary Margolis, the CEO of Social Sentinel. His company monitors public social media posts on behalf of “thousands” of U.S. K-12 schools spread across 30 states.

“If you’re responsible for the safety and security of a school, you have to pay attention to the places where harm is being foreshadowed,” Margolis said.

“In the absence of that, you’re taking on great risk and missing the conversation.”

2. The market is evolving extraordinarily fast.

But even in the face of such high-stakes messaging, K-12 leaders have a responsibility to conduct due diligence.

Part of that is understanding the rapidly shifting environment in which they’re operating.

A decade ago, a handful of companies offered to help schools filter their web traffic, as required by the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act.

In the last couple years, though, both the number of companies in the market and the variety of monitoring services they offer have expanded dramatically. The pitch is not only to prevent school shootings, but also to flag warning signs around more prevalent issues such as bullying, self-harm, and suicide.

A company like Securly, for example, now offers web filtering, plus “sentiment analysis” of students’ social media posts; an “emotionally intelligent” app that sends parents weekly reports and automated push notifications detailing their children’s internet searches and browsing histories; a tip line; and the option of 24-hour human review of flagged threats.

Meanwhile, Social Sentinel recently announced it was moving beyond social media monitoring with new features such as Gmail integration (to scan students’ emails) and an anonymous tip-sharing platform.

And conversely, a company called Gaggle, which already scans the digital files and messages of nearly 5 million U.S. K-12 students using school-issued devices and accounts, is now thinking about adding social-media monitoring to its menu of offerings.

The irony is that K-12 leaders often end up feeding the very market frenzy that can sometimes skew their own decision-making.

“Our districts are asking for it, saying ‘Jeff, you’ve got to help us with this. This is killing us, it’s killing our students. We feel helpless to try to solve these problems,’” said Gaggle CEO Jeff Patterson.

3. It’s unclear how well K-12 surveillance and monitoring technologies actually work.

Skeptics say there’s no evidence these tools are effective.

“Aside from anecdotes promoted by the companies that sell this software, there is no proof that these surveillance tools work,” lawyers from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school wrote in an April blog post.

But the companies themselves say that’s a flawed and overly simplistic way of evaluating their tools. The rising demand from schools speaks to their value, they say. There are plenty of reports of thwarted violence and suicides. And many K-12 clients don’t want to publicly release details of shooting plots that have been uncovered, officials from both Gaggle and Social Sentinel maintained.

Education Week’s investigation—which included reviewing hundreds of pages of notifications, alerts, and other documents obtained through public-records requests—found a complicated story.

Gaggle, for example, referred reporters to multiple K-12 clients that had ostensibly used its service to prevent shootings and violence. Most of the incidents proved to be ambiguous; in Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, a 15-year-old was arrested and expelled for making online threats that he contended were a joke.

More common—and clear cut—were examples where K-12 officials say they used such services to prevent suicides and self-harm. Larry Johnson, the director of public safety for the Grand Rapids district, said such incidents trumped any other concerns about either effectiveness or civil liberties of the technology:

“I think it’s a necessary evil.”

4. These tools generate a ton of information—much of it ambiguous, irrelevant, or problematic—that has to be vetted.

Consider the experience of Evergreen Public Schools in Washington state. Between September and March of this school year, Gaggle flagged more than 9,000 incidents for the district. Eighty-four percent were for minor violations, such as profanity, some of which was found in students’ college admissions essays or class assignments. Among the other incidents: a vague message from one student to another that read “Tomorrow it will all be over,” and photos of drug activity, fights, and nudity that students inadvertently transferred from their personal devices when they plugged them into their school computers.

The flagged incidents created all kinds of difficult decisions for district officials. But none could reasonably be considered to have prevented violence against a school, said Shane Gardner, the district’s director of safety and security.

“We haven’t ever unraveled an incident where it was, ‘Boy, good thing we caught this kid, because he had a gun in his guitar case,’” he said.

Texas’s Brazosport Independent School District, meanwhile, is a client of Social Sentinel’s. During the first eight months of this school year, the social media monitoring service generated nearly 140 alerts. A few may conceivably have referenced possible self-harm or threats of violence. Most of the flagged content, however, was far more ambiguous, if not outright absurd, including a tweet about cats and a post from one of the district’s own elementary schools announcing a lockdown drill.

The net effect?

“You’re not finding a needle in a haystack,” said Chad Marlow, the senior advocacy and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “You’re just creating a much bigger haystack.”

5. Schools have to talk about privacy and civil liberties now, not later.

Given the astonishing variety of situations that come up, protecting the civil liberties of students and the public should be front of mind, Marlow argued. That doesn’t change just because the information is digital.

“I think people are often more comfortable violating people’s privacy electronically than physically, but there should really be no distinction,” he said. “We would not accept a situation where schools could go into any student’s bedroom, rifle around, and see any letters they wrote or diaries they kept.”

The fear is that K-12 is soon to experience the same dynamics we’re now seeing in the consumer sector, where companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pushed for huge scale before the potential downsides of their products could be adequately considered.

But the impact of K-12 surveillance technologies on civil liberties is not a conversation many school and district leaders seem to yet be having.

“It’s an interesting perspective, even though it hasn’t come up yet for us,” said Sarah Trimble-Oliver, the chief information officer for the Cincinnati, Ohio, school district. “It would probably be healthy to have our students questioning the ways we monitor them, and we should want to teach them to question that.”

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