(TNS) — Bay State students are at risk of spying and hacking from their school districts, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which tomorrow will call for clearer guidelines and updated privacy policies to protect students from unwarranted searches of electronic devices.
"One of the things we're really pushing for is for schools to adopt a policy that, at the very least, there needs to be reasonable suspicion before there's a search of Web history or a device," said Jessie Rossman, a staff attorney for the Massachusetts ACLU.
In a recent report, the ACLU found that most policies in the state's K-12 schools allowed aggressive monitoring of school-issued devices — including laptops, Kindles and tablets — although those policies are rarely put into practice.
"We've found that in fact, superintendents in a bunch of different school systems say they don't actually search through emails or web history. They don't have that staffing," said Kade Crockford, director of technology for the ACLU's Liberty Project. "But they do have policies in place that allow suspicionless monitoring."
At least eight districts use off-campus filtering or monitoring software on school-issued devices, according to the report. And at least four of those — Auburn, Natick, Wayland and West Springfield — use tools that also can track off-campus Internet activity.
"If the student is using the school department's computer, there may be circumstances under which that student's history may be looked at," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "There could be a threat. There could be plagiarism. The student's history can actually be used to support a student to prove research was done. But there has to be a diligent effort to protect that student's privacy so that Big Brother is not constantly looking over their shoulder."
Koocher said his association generally favors more privacy and recalled a situation a few years ago in which a principal was about to change school policy to give himself the authority to seize the cellphone of a student suspected of carrying a firearm or a controlled substance. The school committee stepped in and stopped the new rule.
"I think people need to use extraordinary discretion, and the policies in place in many school departments will guide them on issues of privacy," Koocher said.
The ACLU also is warning of the danger of sharing of student records with third-party corporations, especially given the threat of cyber hacking.
"Schools need to be very transparent about what information they're collecting and sharing with third parties, and which disclosures parents can opt out of," Crockford said.
©2016 the Boston Herald, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.