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 school network monitoring, social media monitoring, and facial recognition technology.
Issue Brief: Data Sharing with Law Enforcement
Across the country, schools are exploring tools that monitor students’ social media activity in an effort to identify “warning signs” or potential threats. In fact, the Brennan Center for Justice reports a tenfold increase in the number of districts purchasing social media monitoring technology tools from 2013 to 2018.
Some stakeholders believe that the potential benefits of social media monitoring tools outweigh any privacy risks, particularly since social media posts are considered public information. But others have raised concerns about a host of privacy, equity, and civil liberty issues. According to the New York Times, “There is little evidence the companies have helped ferret out brewing threats of violence, bullying or self-harm.”
For example, social media posts are easily taken out of context, as was the case for an Alabama high schooler whose inside joke led to serious trouble. Similarly, photos don’t always paint a clear picture – just ask a Connecticut student who found himself in the center of controversy for a Snapchat photo of a toy gun. Additionally, emerging trends indicate social media monitoring tools disproportionately flag students of color as potential threats, leading to unwarranted expulsions and suspensions. The Brennan Center noted in a Washington Post op-ed noted that, unfortunately, “[a]n algorithm trawling the Web for people who like violent video games or firearms would be swamped with far more hits than any law enforcement agency or school administrator could conceivably review.”
Educators and policymakers must recognize that supporting enhanced school safety requires a more holistic strategy. We all want to keep children safe, and privacy is a key part of school safety programs. Schools should be trusted places where students can learn, grow, and make mistakes. No one wants students’ mistakes or misunderstandings to follow them around for their whole lives. Students deserve evidence-based policies to keep them safe at school – and unfortunately, social media monitoring does not have evidence behind it.
What They’re Saying: News and Research
- The U.S. Department of Education: School Resource Officers, School Law Enforcement Units, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
- Salt Lake Tribune: Police officers in Salt Lake City schools will be trained to arrest students less often
- Education Week: 1.7 Million Students Attend Schools With Police But No Counselors, New Data Show
- Washington Post: Schools Are Helping Police Spy on Kids’ Social Media Activity
- The Atlantic: When School Feels Like Prison
- ProPublica/New York Times: He Drew His School Mascot — and ICE Labeled Him a Gang Member
- Hastings Law Journal: Databasing Delinquency
- The Equity Project at Indiana University: Eliminating Excessive and Unfair Exclusionary Discipline in Schools: Policy Recommendations for Reducing Disparities
- National Association of State Boards of Education: School Surveillance: The Consequences for Equity and Privacy
- Law Enforcement Access to Student Records
This guide seeks to help school administrators and edtech service providers understand their rights and responsibilities regarding law enforcement access to student records
- Principles for School Safety, Privacy, and Equity
Written by 40 education, privacy, disability rights, and civil rights organizations, these 10 principles are designed to protect students’ privacy, dignity, and right to an equal education. The principles recommend that safety policies focus on prevention, avoid discrimination and biases, define and limit the role of law enforcement, critically evaluate and monitor surveillance tools, ensure key health services, and more.
- School Resource Officers as School Officials
This short video with Michael Hawes, former Director of Student Privacy at the U.S. Department of Education, discusses what happens when school resource officers are also defined as school officials under FERPA.