Ensuring School Safety While Also Protecting Privacy: FPF Testimony Before the Federal Commission on School Safety

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By Sara Collins, Tyler Park, and Amelia Vance

Amelia Vance, FPF’s Director of Education Privacy, spoke today at the Federal Commission on Student Safety’s Listening Session (see the video here). She asked that any Commission recommendations include the need for privacy “guardrails” around school safety measures to ensure that student privacy and equity are protected.

She suggested three concrete steps that could improve safety and safeguard privacy:

  1. First, the Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center should publish guidance regarding FERPA provisions that permit data sharing in response to safety threats;
  2. Second, programs or proposals to collect and analyze additional student data should be targeted at the most serious threats to school safety, not minor infractions of school policy; and
  3. Finally, Schools should be transparent about their data-driven safety initiatives.  

Parents trust schools with their children, and schools should act to ensure student safety. In order for that to happen, schools must engage in some forms of surveillance. This includes ensuring preschoolers do not wander off, keeping third graders on task, as well as preventing or identifying instances of bullying or potential violence. These responsibilities are not new, but, as technology has evolved, schools have an increased ability to monitor students continually, both in and out of the classroom. Schools are using services such as social media monitoring, digital video surveillance linked to law enforcement, and visitor management systems to help protect their students. These can be useful tools; however, they can also harm students if there are not appropriate measures in place to regulate and guide their use.

Many recent state school safety proposals include surveillance as a tactic to avoid future school violence. For example, Florida’s new law creates a database combining data from social media, law enforcement, and social services agencies. The school safety plan from Texas proposes combining local, state, and federal resources to scan and analyze not only public student social media posts, but also “private or direct messages” and “Information exchanged in private chat groups [or] via text message.” To be clear, the government is actively seeking out children’s social media accounts, both public and private, and combining this information with existing law enforcement or social services records to profile which students are threats.

Individual districts and states can and should set their own policies of whether and how to monitor students and protect school safety. However, privacy guardrails must be drawn so parents and students can be reassured that their rights will be protected.

The negative effects of surveillance should be considered as well. Surveillance can undermine a student’s sense of safety, creating a prison-like environment where students feel big brother is always watching. Students are still maturing and need to know schools are safe spaces where they can ask questions, think creatively, and make mistakes. Increased surveillance can also create a “permanent record” that can limit a student’s future opportunities. Retention, use and analysis of such data may inform algorithmic decision-making that impacts students later in life, opening a door to the universe of harms that can arise from automated decision-making. There are also legal limitations on when student data can be shared with law enforcement, as FPF discussed in a recent publication.

Some advocates have expressed concern that if districts and states do not set policies limiting and describing the purposes for which surveillance will be used, surveillance could aggravate existing school discipline disparities between groups of students. A recent GAO report on student discipline found that while students with disabilities made up only twelve percent of the student population they accounted for nearly twenty-five percent of the students who were referred to law enforcement, arrested, or suspended. The latest report from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection showed that black students accounted for fifteen percent of the student population as a whole, they accounted for thirty-one percent of arrests. This disparity has appeared in the student surveillance space as well: an Alabama school district implemented a new security protocol that included social media monitoring. Of the 14 suspensions issued by the school district due to the new protocol, 12 were African American students. Increased student surveillance is likely to disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities.

These effects can be mitigated by adopting privacy protections, such as those laid out in the Fair Information Practice Principles and recommendations from a report about the intersection of school surveillance, privacy, and equity, co-written by Amelia in her previous role at the National Association of State Boards of Education. Any surveillance that is undertaken should have policies about what data is collected, why it is collected, and how the data will be used. Schools should be explicit with students and parents that these tools are designed to curb and respond to threats of violence and harm – not petty infractions of school codes. When a school develops its emergency response plan, it should articulate guidelines about what constitutes a threat to the health or safety of a student, as well as the kind of information that will be shared in response to that threat.

However, privacy should never get in the way of preventing school violence. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was amended to clarify when information can be shared during a health or safety emergency. However, that is not enough; districts have shared that they need more guidance on when they are able to report potential safety threats, and not enough teachers are aware of what FERPA allows. The Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) has been vital for schools seeking practical guidance on FERPA. Amelia testified that the Commission should recommend that PTAC publish guidance and provide more technical assistance on this issue.

Schools across America are looking to the Commission’s recommendations to guide their decisions around safety and surveillance. Amelia testified that the Commission should recommend that programs or proposals to collect and analyze additional student data should be targeted at the most serious threats to school safety. If applied broadly to less serious violations of school rules, the programs could overwhelm school administrators with data, cast suspicion on students who show no signs of violent behavior, and fail to promptly identify individuals who pose genuine threats to school safety. Amelia also asked that the Commission urge schools to be transparent about their data-driven safety initiatives. Secrecy breeds distrust, and trust is a crucial pillar of school communities.

Student opportunities should not be limited, either by school safety concerns or by violations of their privacy.

Read Amelia’s full testimony here.