A Closer Look: Student Data Across Systems

A Closer Look: Student Data Across Systems

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: Sharing Student Data Across Systems

Schools collect and report a range of data on students for many laudable purposes, such as enhancing educational outcomes, ensuring all students are treated equitably, and providing mental health services and accommodations to improve learning. Some of this data is quite sensitive, such as disability status, religion or sexual orientation, and in some states, may include students’ mental health records and information about children who have been victims of bullying.  This data collection, some of which is mandated by federalor state law, can be vital for parents, schools, and policymakers to understand whether or not different students are being served well.

However, there is growing interest in sharing student data collected for other purposes in an effort to proactively detect threats of possible school violence. In Florida, for example, a 2018 law mandated the creation of a “School Safety Portal,” which combines data from education records, social media monitoring, law enforcement, and social service agencies – data that was never intended to be used for this purpose, the use of which could disincentivize students from seeking help if they fear that asking for help could later used to label them a threat in a portal that the state’s own school safety commission said wouldnot be useful.

While this intent is understandable, “preventing school shootings through data is fraught with ethical and technical risks.” Student data can be easily misinterpreted, creating false links between mental health and violence, and put minority students and students with disabilities at greater risk of being unfairly targeted as potential threats.

Beyond potentially harming student civil rights, overbroad school surveillance programs can put important data-driven school initiatives at risk. When data originally intended to ensure that schools serve all children equitably is repurposed in a way that could harm or stigmatize them it can break down hard-earned trust between students and parents, schools, and governmental entities.

To minimize risks, policymakers and schools should consider establishing policies that limit how data collected to help students could be reused in ways that could harm them. These policies can include data minimization, access limitations, and data retention. Setting appropriate student data retention policies, for example, minimizes the likelihood that students’ educational records will contain unnecessary or misleading information that could have a negative long-term impact on their future. Before data is used in a way not originally anticipated, agencies could be required to perform 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.

Repurposing information that was initially collected to help students and ensure equitable treatment and learning for students can break the trust between students, parents, and schools. Students, parents, and educators all deserve transparency about data-driven safety initiatives. Trust is a crucial pillar of school communities. Students’ opportunities should not be limited, either by school safety concerns or by violations of their privacy.

What They’re Saying: News and Research

FPF Resources

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