How can schools make privacy part of their safety plans? The Future of Privacy Forum’s new animated 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. This video is part of FPF’s continuing efforts to provide districts with guidance and resources to ensure that safety, equity, and privacy are all equally valued.
Over the past two years, FPF has been closely following school safety policymaking, from local policies to state laws. Unfortunately, many bills and policies have focused on data sharing or adoption of new technologies without considering key privacy concerns, such as who can access data, how data is verified, and when data will be deleted. For example, a 2018 Florida law mandated the creation of a social media database, which will be combined with school, social services, and law enforcement data, to identify students who might be threats. The data will include whether students were victims of bullying or harassment due to protected characteristics such as religion, race, or disability and whether they have been in the foster care system. The law also required districts to collect information on students’ mental health referrals. Yet, the law includes almost no privacy protections. Our video breaks down why privacy matters, and provides some practical first steps on how to build privacy safeguards into safety plans. In the coming months, FPF will release further resources to help parents, educators, schools, and districts understand the school safety and privacy landscape and to provide actionable solutions so that districts can incorporate privacy guardrails into school safety policies.
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. Research has shown that surveillance has a chilling effect. Students might avoid searching on sensitive subjects such as depression or LGBT issues if they know they are being monitored. Students who feel they are constantly watched could also lose their motivation to learn or fear the consequences of admitting they don’t know something.
So what can be done? Schools can and should set their own policies on whether and how to monitor students and ensure their safety. To do so, schools should include privacy guardrails to reassure parents and students that their rights will be protected.
Schools should start by specifying their safety goals. Are they trying to manage visitors better? Are they trying to identify threats or self-harm behaviors? Prevent cyberbullying? Avoid property damage? Different tools are needed for different objectives; the best tools for a rural district may be different from those for an urban district. One district IT professional shared with FPF that they didn’t need a social media monitoring tool because the district’s culture was one in which people look out for one another and report concerns. Each community’s needs will vary based on its context.
The need to understand context leads to the next step: getting community feedback. Districts should talk with students, parents, teachers, and the broader community. They can do this through forums, surveys, webinars, email, and printed notices.
Once schools and communities decide on their goals and how to address them, they should make policies. Creating these policies mostly involves discussing questions:
- Who should have access to data? FERPA grants parents the right to access their students’ records. Can parents access the information that schools collect? What about teachers? What about school resource officers? Should all school employees have access?
- How long should data be kept? When and how will it be deleted?
- For students identified as a threat, will schools allow them to access the information used to make that identification? Can students challenge the accuracy of the information or the conclusions drawn from it?
- Can people opt out of new safety technologies your district has adopted, such as a visitor management or facial recognition system?
- Think about digital equity. For example, students of low socioeconomic status may be able to access the internet only through the school network or their school device. This means that the school may have more sensitive information about those students’ computer and online activities, compared to those of students from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. How will schools address that inequity? Does that change the district’s policy about what it monitors when children are at home versus at school?
- Think about bias. How could a school safety tool differentially impact minority students? How will the school combat implicit bias? For example, video recordings show all students in the same light, but people viewing the recordings may have implicit bias, which can impact their interpretations. An African-American student reaching into a friend’s backpack could be perceived to be stealing, while a white student doing the same thing may seem to be simply retrieving something for a friend.
- Think about special cases, such as students who are abused. If a district tracks keywords that could indicate self-harm, informing parents who are abusive could lead to greater harm for the students. What about students who are LGBTQIA? If a district sends to parents all the webpages that students have visited, the district could accidentally “out” the student, and the student could be harmed. The goal is to keep students safe, so ensuring that districts consider and create policies for less-frequent cases is vital.
The Principles for School Safety, Privacy, and Equity are a key resource to aid education stakeholders as they begin to engage these questions. 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 National Education of State Boards of Education has published School Surveillance: The Consequences for Equity and Privacy, which also recommends key privacy principles in the context of surveillance technologies.
Finally, districts must provide training. All district personnel should know how to best use the data, how to protect the data, and the policies that answer the questions above.
Privacy is an essential part of all school safety programs. As the questions above suggest, developing a program that includes strong privacy protections involves a long-term process of careful conversations, deliberation, and implementation. Districts need to understand and implement current and new school safety laws, set goals that are right for each community, choose and implement the right tools and strategies, and communicate with key stakeholders.
FPF’s new video will help education stakeholders begin conversations about these topics. For more detailed guidance, schools will soon have access to FPF’s forthcoming toolkits, which comprehensively discuss the privacy risks and harms of various school safety technologies and policies and provide solutions for implementing privacy guardrails in school safety initiatives.
School Safety and Privacy Resources:
- Video Playlist on School Safety & Privacy (animated video and interviews with FPF staff)
- Principles for Student Safety, Privacy, & Equity (FPF is a signatory along with 39 other organizations)
- Law Enforcement Access to Student Records: A Guide for School Administrators and EdTech Providers
- Disclosing Student Information During School Emergencies: A Primer for Schools
- FPF comments and testimony to Federal School Safety Commission
- Should Schools be Using Facial Recognition? (short video with FPF’s expert on biometrics, Brenda Leong)
- Accuracy of Facial Recognition (short video with FPF’s expert on biometrics, Brenda Leong)
- Privacy Harms with Facial Recognition (short video with FPF’s expert on biometrics, Brenda Leong)
Worth Reading: News Articles and Blogs on School Safety and Privacy
- Targeted: A Family and the Quest to Stop the Next School Shooter (Oregonian article, June 24, 2018, and recent audio version)
- Could Monitoring Students on Social Media Stop the Next School Shooting? (New York Times, Sept 6, 2018)
- Florida Plan for a Huge Database to Stop School Shootings Hits Delays, Legal Questions (Education Week, May 30, 2019)
- Schools Are Deploying Massive Digital Surveillance Systems. The Results Are Alarming (Education Week, May 30, 2019)
- Monitoring Kids’ Social Media Accounts Won’t Prevent the Next School Shooting (Washington Post, March 5, 2018)
- What are the acceptable limits of school data? The case of the Florida ‘school safety’ database (Data Smart Schools, June 5, 2019)
- Study: Assessing A Student As A Threat Can Affect Their Well-Being
- Student Surveillance Versus Gun Control: The School Safety Discussion We Aren’t Having (ACLU, March 4, 2019)
- Study: Assessing A Student As A Threat Can Affect Their Well-Being (WBUR, March 8, 2019)
Technology for School Safety Resources
- The Role of Technology in Improving K-12 School Safety (RAND report, 2016)
- School Surveillance Zone (Brennan Center for Justice) (school district social media monitoring)
- Technological School Safety Initiatives: Considerations to Protect All Students (Center for Democracy and Technology and the Brennan Center)
- Could Monitoring Students on Social Media Stop the Next School Shooting? (New York Times article)
- Students’ Safety or Privacy? Why Not Both? (SXSWedu Panel Recording with FPF’s Amelia Vance, Michael Hawes from US Department of Education (USEd), Chad Marlow (ACLU), Bryan Westerman (Denver PS))
- Student Surveillance, Racial Inequalities, and Implicit Racial Bias (academic paper by Jason Nance, University of Florida Levin College of Law)
- Smart Investments for Safer Schools (Center for American Progress)
- Six Considerations Missing from the School Safety and Data Conversation (Center for Democracy and Technology)
- Here’s What Happens When We Allow Facial Recognition Technology in Our Schools (ACLU)
- What are Cyber-Physical Security Systems? (CoSN)
Threat Assessment Resources
- Implementing Threat Assessment Procedures in Schools (National Association of School Psychologists)
- Threat Assessment Fact Sheet (National Association of School Psychologists)
- School Safety and Security (DHS)
- Targeted: A Family and the Quest to Stop the Next School Shooter (Oregonian article and recent audio version) (threat assessment unintended consequences)
- Study: Assessing A Student As A Threat Can Affect Their Well-Being
- He Drew His School Mascot — and ICE Labeled Him a Gang Member (ProPublica/NYT)
Other School Safety Resources
- School Surveillance: The Consequences for Equity and Privacy (NASBE)
- School Resource Officers, School Law Enforcement Units, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (USEd)
- 50-State Comparison: K-12 School Safety (Education Commission of the States)
- Mental Health Primers (American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education)
- Safe and Sounds Schools Toolkits: Assess, Act, and Audit
Other Relevant Privacy Resources
- Mixed Messages: The Limits of Automated Social Media Content Analysis (Center for Democracy and Technology)
Do you have other resources to share? Email us at info AT ferpasherpa.org.