Schools are expected to keep students safe, but increasingly, their attempts to do so are instead putting students at risk. At least, that’s what’s suggested by a report released last week by the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization that’s taking a look at the impact of student surveillance.
This latest report is a continuation of efforts to track monitoring software that keeps tabs on students’ emails, messages, web searches and other information, ostensibly to catch threats like school shootings and self-harm risks.
Those monitoring services have become increasingly common and contentious, especially as political pressure mounts to inspect how the startups that offer those services—companies like Gaggle and GoGuardian, which hold public contracts—use student data.
For a while now, the question among some critics has been whether the safety promised by these platforms comes at the cost of being too intrusive on students’ privacy.
When monitoring tools are used to identify threats to student safety, there’s generally support from students and parents for using them, according to this latest report, which surveyed nationally representative samples of high school students, middle and high school teachers and parents of middle and high school students. But one key finding is that student-surveillance software is being used to discipline students more than it’s being used for their safety.
Of the teachers in schools that use the monitoring software, 78 percent said it’s been used to flag students for disciplinary violations. A smaller share, 54 percent, say it’s been used to get students in front of a counselor, therapist or social worker. In fact, most teachers—70 percent—say that their school intentionally uses the technology to notice disciplinary violations.
There is more than just in-school discipline at stake, though.
For some time, there’s been concern that this type of software increases student interactions with police. For example: After school hours, Baltimore City Public Schools has been sending police to respond to students typing keywords on their school-issued computers, collected by GoGuardian’s digital surveillance tool.
What wasn’t known was how pervasive this practice is. Determining that was one of the motivations behind this latest Center for Democracy and Technology study.
They found it was pretty pervasive.
Thirty-seven percent of teachers say that law enforcement gets messages after hours regarding students’ digital activity, the report says. Monitoring tools have also led to increased interactions with police more broadly, with 44 percent of teachers saying they know of at least one student who’s been contacted by the police because of the software.
This makes some observers worried that surveillance tools might be criminalizing students.
“The novel thing in this research really is the percentage of times that teachers said that student information was turned over to law enforcement for disciplinary purposes. It’s an extremely high percentage,” says Amelia Vance, the founder of Public Interest Privacy Consulting.
The fact that it’s happening isn’t entirely surprising, she says, but “still, the number is viscerally shocking.”
Because of the monitoring, the report claims that students are less likely to express their true feelings and more likely to carefully vet what they search for, potentially making it harder to even know what students are thinking and feeling.
For students who rely on the devices, and don’t own devices without the software installed, freedom of expression and privacy begin to look like unattainable luxuries, indicated Elizabeth Laird, the director of equity in civic technology for the Center for Democracy and Technology.
There’s also concern that marginalized students, who rely more on the school devices, will bear the brunt of worsened discipline practices that already impact those students more. And there’s reason in the report to suspect that surveillance is having a disparate effect, with more Black and Hispanic students saying that they’ve been disciplined.
LGBTQ+ students find themselves particularly vulnerable to this form of invigilation, the report says. They’re disproportionately targeted by monitoring software, which can forcibly disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity. More of these students are also likely to be forced into contact with police, according to the report.
“Students of color, students from low-income families, they are less likely to be able to opt-out of that kind of tracking. So it will have disproportionate harm inflicted on them, whether it’s being outed, whether it’s being disciplined, whether it’s being contacted by law enforcement,” Laird says.
Additionally, in the post-Roe landscape, U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren have raised questions about whether this kind of software can be used to punish students for looking up reproductive care information.
“The question that this reporting leaves me with is, if this is supposed to be used to keep students safe, why is it more common for it to be used for disciplinary purposes?” asks Laird.
There are ways to curb some of the harm, she says, and she wants to know whether and how districts that use this data are doing so.
Federally, there’s some push for reining in the tech companies that offer these services. Earlier this year, for example, a congressional investigation into four of the companies that offer these services—Gaggle.net, Bark Technologies, GoGuardian, and Securly Inc.— accused them of violating the civil rights and safety of students. It called for increased federal oversight.
“Schools aren’t supposed to further the school-to-prison pipeline. They’re supposed to help students, to have the best interests of students at heart,” Vance says. “And particularly when we’re talking about criminalizing students based on mental health issues, you get into some significant questions about whether schools are doing more harm than help.”