What They’re Saying: Stakeholders Warn Senate Surveillance Bill Could Harm Students, Communities


Parents, privacy advocates, education stakeholders, and members of the disability rights community are raising concerns about new Senate legislation that would mandate unproven student surveillance programs and encourage greater law enforcement intervention in classrooms in a misguided effort to improve school safety.

Last week, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the RESPONSE Act, legislation that is intended to help reduce and prevent mass violence in communities. However, the bill includes a provision to dramatically expand the Children’s Internet Protection Act and would require almost every U.S. school to implement costly network monitoring technology and collect massive amounts of student data.

The legislation also requires the creation of school-based “Behavioral Intervention Teams” that will be strongly encouraged to refer concerning student behavior directly to law enforcement, rather than allowing educators who know students best to engage directly and address the issue internally. This provision would likely strengthen the “school to prison pipeline” and could be especially harmful for students of color and students with disabilities.

Take a look at What They’re Saying about the legislation: 

A new Republican bill that claims ‘to help prevent mass shootings’ includes no new gun control measures. Instead, Republican lawmakers are supporting a huge, federally mandated boost to America’s growing school surveillance industry… There is still no research evidence that demonstrates whether or not online monitoring of schoolchildren actually works to prevent violence.

– The Guardian; “Republicans propose mass student surveillance plan to prevent shootings” 

Training behavioral assessment teams to default to the criminal process rather than school-based behavioral assessment and intervention would do little to address violence in schools and would likely foster rather than prevent a violent school environment … By making the criminal process the frontline for student discipline, this bill will only serve to increase the number of students of color and students with disabilities in the juvenile justice system.

– Coalition for Smart Safety; Letter to Senator John Cornyn 

Leslie Boggs, national PTA president, said in a statement that the organization has concerns with the bill as it is currently written. She said the PTA will work with Cornyn’s staff “to ensure evidence-based best practices for protecting students are used, the school to prison pipeline is not increased, students are not discouraged from seeking mental health and counseling support and that students’ online activities are not over monitored.”

– POLITICO; “Questions raised about school safety measures in anti-mass violence bill” 

Privacy experts and education groups, many of which have resisted similar efforts at the state level, say that level of social media and network surveillance can discourage children from speaking their minds online and could disproportionately result in punishment against children of color, who already face higher rates of punishment in school.

– The Hill; “Advocates warn kids’ privacy at risk in GOP gun violence bill” 

Generational gaps between adults and teens make for hefty communication barriers, and a private Facebook message that might read as “dangerous” to a grown law enforcement officer could easily just be two children goofing off… whenever they go online, students would be forced to think about what the government or their school would like and dislike, driving what Republicans so often claim to be against — mental conformity to institutional, government-driven norms. Students’ fears of being watched (and reported) would also inevitably widen the gap between government schools and their students. Surveillance accompanied by the threat of penalty would result in mass distrust from students toward the education system: a reinforced “us versus them” mentality between students and the adults in charge.

– Washington Examiner; “Sorry Republicans, but surveilling schoolchildren is an awful idea” 

Schools are already deploying significant digital surveillance systems in the name of safety…But critics say these surveillance systems vacuum up a huge and irrelevant stream of online data, can lead to false positives, and present huge problems for privacy.

– Education Week; “Senator’s Anti-Violence Bill Backs Active-Shooter Training, School Internet Monitoring” 

Unfortunately, the proposed measures are unlikely to improve school safety; there is little evidence that increased monitoring of all students’ online activities would increase the safety of schoolchildren, and technology cannot yet be used to accurately predict violence. The monitoring requirements would place an unmanageable burden on schools, pose major threats to student privacy, and foster a culture of surveillance in America’s schools. Worse, the RESPONSE Act mandates would reduce student safety by redirecting resources away from evidence-based school safety measures.

– Future of Privacy Forum; “Increased Surveillance is Not an Effective Response to Mass Violence” 

Billed as a response to school shootings, [the RESPONSE Act] has, as critics noted, almost nothing to do with guns, and a great deal to do with increasing surveillance (as well as targeting those with mental health issues)…Not everyone will find this troubling… But if you want to erode civil liberties and traditions of privacy, it’s best to start with people who don’t have the political power to fight back. Children are ideal–not only can’t they fight back, but they will grow up thinking it’s perfectly normal to live under constant surveillance. For their own safety, of course.

– Forbes; “Is Big Brother Watching Your Child? Probably.” 

Rather than focusing on surveillance as a solution to school safety concerns, schools should emphasize the importance of safe and responsible internet use and use school safety funding on evidence-based solutions. By doing so, administrators can create a school community built on trust rather than suspicion.

To learn more about the Future of Privacy Forum’s student privacy project, visit http://www.ferpasherpa.org/.