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: Threat Assessment Protocol in Schools
As Schools work to help ensure students’ safety in the wake of school violence, many have turned to threat assessment programs in an effort to preempt potential danger. However, these programs can have serious consequences for students who are inaccurately identified as potential threats.
Behavioral threat assessments are a “set of investigative and operational techniques” used by law enforcement to prevent violence; they can include monitoring for “early warning” behaviors, interviewing perpetrators involved in conflicts, and conducting mental health evaluations. 42 percent of districts reported using threat assessment procedures in the 2015-16 school year.
While a recent report from the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) clearly states that there is no single profile of an attacker, the report also urges schools to pay close attention to students that exhibit a list of “concerning behaviors,” including dramatic changes in mood or behavior, depression, and increased conflict with peers. Unfortunately, a lot of teen behavior can fit these subjective criteria. The University of Virginia’s Comprehensive School Threat Assessment Guidelines note the importance of a balanced approach: “Youth frequently make threatening statements that are not serious and engage in aggressive behavior that ranges from horseplay to serious assault. It is important not to over-react to youthful misbehavior that does not pose a serious threat of violence.”
Supporters of the use of threat assessments as a prevention-based school safety strategy often cite preliminary research about a set of threat assessment guidelines that resulted in an increased number of students receiving counseling. Additional research showed the use of these threat assessment guidelines reduced racial disparities in suspensions. However, the accuracy of this research hinges on schools implementing threat assessments in a way that mitigates bias while ensuring privacy and due process for students who are under investigation.
Balancing thorough threat assessment programs with student privacy and wellness concerns can be a challenge, especially for under-resourced schools. To limit the potential negative consequences of threat assessment programs, school districts should create transparent protocols that are well-understood by students, parents, and school employees. The protocols should include information on how and why assessments are initiated; what information will be looked at, and how long it will be retained, especially if the threat is found to be unsubstantiated; how implicit or explicit bias will be mitigated; and the rights of students and parents throughout the process.
Schools should also work to prevent misunderstandings and bias by consulting with students, parents, and school personnel who may have a better understanding of a student’s unique circumstances prior to involving police or issuing a suspension. Finally, schools should try to keep threat investigations discrete in order to prevent stigma, embarrassment, or bullying.
Privacy is an essential component to embed into any behavioral threat assessment program. According to NTAC, “students are more likely to report concerning or threatening information when they can do so without fear of retribution for coming forward” and “the school community should feel confident that team members will be responsive to their concerns, and that reports will be acted upon, kept confidential, and handled appropriately.”
Keeping students safe at school requires a holistic strategy that protects students’ rights to fair, equal treatment and privacy just as much as physical safety. The National Association of School Psychologists has outlined some helpful tips for schools implementing threat assessments as “a component of component of a comprehensive approach maintaining a safe school, which offers a balance between physical and psychological safety.”
What They’re Saying: News and Research
- CBS News: Secret Service study says most school shooters showed warning signs
- Ed Week: Most School Shooters Showed Many Warning Signs, Secret Service Report Finds
- Ed Week: What Schools Need to Know About Threat Assessment Techniques
- Staten Island Advance: U.S. Secret Service: 10 warning signs before a school shooting
- Searchlight New Mexico: Who’s the threat?
- The Oregonian: Targeted: A Family and the Quest to Stop the Next School Shooter
- WBUR: Irresponsible Behavior Or Legitimate Threat? It’s Important To Know The Difference (Opinion)
- National Association for School Psychologists: Threat Assessment at School
- United States Secret Service: National Threat Assessment Center
- United States Secret Service: Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence (November 2019)
- United States Secret Service: Enhancing School Safety Using A Threat Assessment Model (2018)
- U.S. Department of Education: School Resource Officers, School Law Enforcement Units, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
- School Safety & Privacy: An Animated Introduction
This short video explores some technologies that schools use or are considering, privacy harms that can result from surveillance, and basic steps to help districts safeguard students’ privacy.
- Principles for School Safety, Privacy, and Equity
Written by 40 education, privacy, disability rights, and civil rights organizations, these principals are designed to protect students’ privacy, dignity, and right to an equal education.