A Closer Look: Best Practices

A Closer Look: Best Practices

A Closer Look: Assessing the Privacy Costs of School Safety Proposals

In an effort to prevent school violence, a number of communities and educators are exploring new policies and technologies that are intended to help identify and flag potential threats. However, each of these efforts has serious and lasting implications on student privacy and data security. To help raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities presented by these school safety policies, the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) has developed a weekly brief that will offer a closer look at a few of the most prevalent technologies along with useful resources and articles to further inform readers. Don’t miss our previous issue briefs on sharing data with law enforcement, school network monitoring, social media monitoring, and facial recognition technology.

Issue Brief: Best Practices

School safety has become a more prominent issue across the country, with schools and districts embracing digital technologies such as social media monitoring and facial recognition to prevent school violence. Several states have enacted laws addressing school safety, many of which include new mandates for increased data collection, data sharing with law enforcement, or safety measures that utilize surveillance technologies. However, few of the new laws include appropriate privacy protections for students.

The Future of Privacy Forum reviewed existing and emerging school safety technologies and compiled best practices for schools and districts seeking to implement school safety programs:

  • Schools should reframe the concept of school safety and develop school safety programs that include student privacy considerations. School safety encompasses not only physical but also the social, emotional, and psychological well-being of students. Rushing to implement school safety technologies and strategies without appropriate privacy guardrails could compromise student privacy as well as school culture, resulting in students losing trust in their schools.
  • Schools and districts should be specific about safety goals and implement evidence-based solutions. Instead of seeking to broadly improve school safety, schools should focus on defining the exact harm they are trying to prevent. Specific goals will help ensure schools only adopt the technology and collect the data necessary to accomplish set objectives. Once safety goals have been set, schools must seek out evidence-based solutions. Rather than support school safety, non-evidence based protocols like social media monitoring are likely to trigger false alarms, fail to identify actual threats, and increase the workload on already overburdened administrators.
  • Before initiating any new strategies, schools and districts should engage in broad community discussions. If evidence-based school safety measures include physical or digital monitoring, it must be developed transparently, in consultation with experts and community stakeholders, and focus on real threats. Engaging in critical conversations early will help schools develop specific policies, understand community concerns and potential unintended consequences, and ultimately ensure all stakeholders feel included.
  • Privacy protections should be documented in writing, reviewed often and shared openly. Both school safety and data privacy are abstract ideas that may mean very different things to different people.   When schools begin using student data in new ways or implement surveillance tools, students deserve clear and concrete policies on which data is collected, who has access to it, how it will be used, and when it will be destroyed. Schools may want to consider conducting a privacy impact assessment, which is the most common way that government and corporate entities appropriately balance the benefits and risks of data-use initiatives. Students deserve assurances that their data will not be misused and that data collection and storage will comply with relevant privacy laws.
  • Schools and districts should provide ongoing safety and privacy training to all school personnel who have access to student data. This includes not only educators and administrative staff such as bus drivers and front desk personnel, but also school resource officers (SROs), who often act in a complex role as both school officials and law enforcement officers. Staff should be trained on the importance of student privacy, how to safeguard it, and their role in protecting it. SROs must be aware of FERPA requirements to understand if the information they receive falls under the school official exception, which limits the student data they can reshare with other law enforcement officials outside of an emergency.

States seeking to implement evidence-based, effective school safety measures that recognize and incorporate valuable privacy provisions should look to Utah as a leader in this arena.  In March 2019, Utah passed an ambitious school safety law that includes training for principals and school resource officers on topics such as privacy, working with disabled students, and restorative justice. In addition, Utah’s law mandates the state establish model student safety and support policies and procedures covering threat assessments and interventions, evidence-based strategies to address school climate, and permitted disclosures of student data under state and federal laws such as FERPA. The law also provides new resources to increase student access to mental health and counseling services.

While policymakers and districts nationwide have made significant strides to improve school safety, it is a relatively new area that requires close attention and suggests a long road ahead to develop appropriate policies that consider critical privacy provisions. We hope these best practices will serve as a useful starting point, and, as always, welcome further discussion about these issues.

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