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7 Issues to Consider When Balancing School Surveillance with Student Privacy

A new National Association of State Boards of Education report examines the potential consequences of school surveillance on privacy and equity.

Today’s classroom is nothing like we’ve seen before — mobile device programs, class websites, digital homework and virtual lesson plans all have taken learning to a new, exciting level.

This newfound technology also takes the ability to monitor students to a whole new level. But how far is too far? That’s exactly what the National Association of State Boards of Education examined in a report released Oct. 20 on the potential consequences of school surveillance on privacy and equity.

As the report notes, there is a great need for surveillance in schools today. Ensuring students’ safety is one of the most obvious reasons for using surveillance methods. In fact, nearly all schools are required to use basic Internet filtering and monitoring in accordance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, while 18 states have introduced additional filtering laws in schools.

Surveillance is also a tool for keeping students on track with school-provided computers and devices, as well as for auditing schools for efficiency and tracking students for safety.

While there are key benefits to school surveillance, the report also points out the potentially damaging effects it can have to privacy and equity.

“We want to make sure our kids when they go to school are safe, learning, and our schools are run in an efficient and productive way. The way that happens is through surveillance,” says co-author Amelia Vance. “It’s making sure kids aren’t being cyberbullied, or tracking when kids get on the school bus. It’s making sure kids are not on Facebook instead of learning about the American Revolution. Given those sorts of positives, the question then becomes, how do we stop the negative consequences?” 

Of those negative consequences, the report considers the “Surveillance Effect” and the fact that students may “feel they are in a less nurturing, comfortable learning environment.” If students know they are constantly being monitored, that could alter behavior and potentially stunt risk-taking, creativity and asking questions in a learning environment. 

Another consequence the report considers is perpetuation of the digital divide. It notes that as of 2012, 100 million U.S. households did not have access to high-speed Internet, and almost half of poorest households did not own a computer. Therefore, if school-provided devices are being more closely monitored than privately owned devices, surveillance and limited access to digital possibilities will be less relevant to privileged students and families. Similarly, the report notes that unintentional biases may work their way into disciplinary decision-making when it comes to surveillance. 

Finally, the report points out that surveillance and endless digital storage without proper deletion requirements may allow employers or colleges to make judgments about students’ characters based on learning moments or inapplicable behavior of the past. That is, every moment can potentially end up on a student’s permanent record regardless of appropriateness. 

To address these potential consequences, Vance and fellow report author J. William Tucker suggest that state policymakers develop guardrails to make sure surveillance helps children, rather than impeding on their development and progress. They share seven key issues to keep in mind in the decision-making process, including: 

1. Minimization: Only use surveillance when there is clear evidence of a threat to student safety or learning. Consider whether surveillance is the answer to the problem. Policymakers should create state and district-level data governance policies to enforce minimization efforts. 

2. Proportionality: Districts and schools should have data governance policies to ensure that the use of surveillance is proportional to severity of the problem and consequences for the student. 

3. Transparency: Policymakers should ensure that populations under surveillance are informed of the practices and policies of its use. The authors also call for student and parent education on data literacy so they can understand the degree to which they will be monitored. 

4. Openness: The question of whether and/or how to use surveillance should be an ongoing discussion open to public debate. The report also notes that what works for one community may not work for another. 

5. Empowerment: State policymakers can implement policies to ensure students and parents have the right to refuse permission to have information collected. Policies can also address the right for records to be made accessible, and due process protections. 

6. Equity: State board members may implement restorative justice techniques as alternatives to “zero-tolerance” policies to reduce suspensions, expulsions and disciplinary referrals. 

7. Training: To effectively implement these principles and policies, staff, administrators and teachers must be trained in data, equity and privacy processes. State boards may consider requiring training for school staff and students to improve digital literacy. 

According to Vance, finding that perfect balance with surveillance in schools must not be an afterthought.

“The way for policymakers to stay ahead of the technology is to keep in mind that privacy and equity have to be baked in,” she said. “It’s a decision that has to be made proactively as they’re going through the process.” 

Vance also advised that state policymakers looking for inspiration on privacy policies can soon look to new Washington, D.C., legislation as a model, which is expected to pass by 2017.