The Future Of School Safety Includes Round-The-Clock Surveillance Of Students

from the Big-Brother-101 dept

To go to school is to be surveilled, on campus and off. The average school hosts a number of cameras, and the average school administration is always looking for more ways to keep tabs on students, even after they’ve gone home.

The move towards pervasive surveillance of off-campus activities is generally justified with the meaningless assertion that if it stops one person from shooting up a school (or just shooting themselves), it’s all worth it. Two articles based on public records requests — both written by Benjamin Herold of Education Week — show there’s a surveillance state being built one school district at a time. (h/t Amelia Vance)

Documents obtained by Education Week via open-records requests show that over the past year, state agencies have discussed the possibility of sharing a breathtaking amount of data. That included more than 2.5 million records related to Floridians who received involuntary psychiatric examinations, records for over 9 million people placed in foster care, diagnosis and treatment records for substance abusers, unverified criminal reports of suspicious activity, reports on students who were bullied and harassed because of their race or sexual orientation, and more.

This database is currently on hold as education officials try to figure out how much of this incredibly sensitive info they can share with other agencies, much less collect in the first place. But once these details are ironed out, the rollout will continue, urged along by Governor Ron DeSantis, who has publicly expressed his frustration that schools aren’t placing students under round-the-clock surveillance quickly enough.

It’s not just medical, psychiatric, and criminal records. This program also seeks to hoover up as much data as it can from students’ social media accounts and internet activities. The data-sharing concerns are being mitigated by a loophole in federal privacy laws. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits sharing of much of this info, but provides an exception for “school officials.” Schools want to hand this information to law enforcement and law enforcement officers in schools (usually referred to as “school resource officers”) are the loophole districts are using to circumvent FERPA’s protections.

While the collected documents listed above are concerning enough in their implications — that implication being that schools consider at-risk students to be “threats” — the addition of social media to the mix increases the number of students viewed as threats because algorithms and haystacks tend to ignore important things like context or frame of mind. The software being sold to schools may expedite the collection of posts containing flagged terms but they’re completely useless when it comes to doing more human things, like recognizing humor or sarcasm.

Relying on flagged terms means school security contractors are sorting through tons of garbage data. One company’s software flagged all of the following as potentially threatening:

Tweets about the movie “Shooter,” the “shooting clinic” put on by the Stephen F. Austin State University women’s basketball team, and someone apparently pleased their credit score was “shooting up.”

A common Facebook quiz, posted by the manager of a local vape shop.

A tweet from the executive director of a libertarian think tank, who wrote that a Democratic U.S. senator “endorses murder” because of her support for abortion rights.

And a post by one of the Brazosport district’s own elementary schools, alerting parents that it would be conducting a lockdown drill that morning.

“Please note that it is only a drill,” the school’s post read. “Thank you for your understanding. We will post in the comment section when the drill is over.”

The software also flagged this tweet, posted by a 31-year-old comic book artist who happened to be tweeting from inside Social Sentinel’s geofence:

If you can’t read/see the tweet, it says:

Cat #1: pwease feed me thank you

Me: ha, cute.


Me: I would die for you.

It’s a tweet about the artist’s relationship with her cats and any human being would immediately recognize it as having nothing to do with self-harm. But there’s no room for nuance in automated keyword searches.

The head of Social Sentinel says people shouldn’t worry about the collateral damage. Instead, they should be thankful all this surveillance could theoretically prevent a student from harming themselves or others.

“If you’re responsible for the safety and security of a school, you have to pay attention to the places where harm is being foreshadowed,” said Gary Margolis, the CEO of Social Sentinel, which claims “thousands” of K-12 schools in 30 states are using its service.

Margolis said it’s unfair to focus on the false positives that may slip through a company’s monitoring system. Any harms pale in comparison to the benefits of what is caught.

That might mean something if meaningful things were actually being caught. But the filters searching for harmful material, threatening posts, and other concerning content are being used as a dragnet to sweep up students who do nothing more than use certain flagged words in benign ways. Monitoring company Gaggle flagged 3,000 incidents in Michigan schools over a six-month period. 2,500 of those were minor violations like profanity.

It’s not just a Michigan problem. It’s a Gaggle problem.

The experiences of other K-12 Gaggle clients help illuminate such concerns.

Evergreen Public Schools in Washington state, for example, started using the company’s service this school year. Between September and mid-March, the system flagged more than 9,000 incidents in the 26,000-student district.

The overwhelming majority—84 percent—were for minor violations, such as profanity.

These programs are deployed under a number of faulty assumptions, not the least of which is students have zero expectation of privacy. Students still have rights, even if they’re somewhat diminished when they’re on campus. They also assume this pervasive surveillance will result in safer schools, even though there’s no evidence that points to this conclusion. Companies and schools may be assuming the courts will back up these efforts when fighting lawsuits, but it seems unlikely many judges will agree that striving for school safety justifies widespread untargeted surveillance of minors.

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Comments on “The Future Of School Safety Includes Round-The-Clock Surveillance Of Students”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Teaching all the wrong lessons

What could possibly go wrong with teaching kids that there’s absolutely nothing wrong or noteworthy with having everything they do and say being tracked, no matter where they are, ‘just in case’?

Or how about instilling the idea that even the slightest slip of the tongue or saying something that anyone with critical thinking skills can see is a joke can result in the hammer being brought down with overwhelming force?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Teaching all the wrong lessons

Sadly that is the lesson many want taught. There is a disturbing trend of parents acting like a YA dystopian villain with no self reflection. The kind of people who in a world with karma would find themselves wondering why people think it is okay that their nursing home is a panopticon.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: wrong lessons

… keep in mind that 90% of Americans spend their formative years in mandatory government institutions (public schools) with strict controls, including close weekday supervision by government agents ("teachers").

One has already lost a major portion of personal liberty if forced to attend government school (or government approved alternative) for years. Stricter student surveillance techniques is a minor concern relative to the primary rights violation.

"The ‘primary’ function of the public school is not education but social control.
Control is easier with ever more intrusive surveillance.

Government schools are de facto day-prisons, to which children are sentenced by compulsory education and truancy laws.
Most schools now even have armed prison-guards (School Resource Officers)

School Principals and Administrators are adopting a Prison Warden mindset toward the "inmates".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: wrong lessons

I agree, but you’re also very wrong. I didn’t lose any ‘liberty’ during my 12 years in public schools. I got my fair share of paddlings (yes I’m old enough to have gone to school when they were still allowed to do that) which was 1. I also spent enough Saturdays in detention to make me realize that rules that are enforced work (i.e. don’t remove the screws from doorchecks or you’ll get detention.) In the last 30 years I’ve received 1 ticket. I do speed because according to the DOT, that’s how they decide to raise the speed limits (80th percentile or something like that) but I don’t speed through school zones, even the ones that are unnecessary, like the one closest to my house.

As to the article itself, Tim, you never once mentioned In Loco Parentis, which is the doctrine that gives schools the authority that the think they should be using. How they use it relates directly to the power that law enforcement has and how they use it. Some government agencies have recently ruled that the police don’t actually have to protect you, while others have indicated (Broward county) that school cops who run away are guilty of dereliction of duty. When a child brings a gun to school and shoots someone or multiple someones, its currenly only the parent who’s blamed, why should the principal (and assistant principals) share that blame? Do they only get to use the power but shoulder none of the responsibility that comes from In Loco Parentis?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: wrong lessons

if you truly voluntarily attended public school for 12 years — then of course it was your choice and your liberty was intact.
But it’s very doubtful you would have freely chosen that specific 12 year chore without the domination of government school system in place.

What about everyone else? You really think most everybody wants and enjoys 12 years of arbitrary, coerced government control and training?

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Teaching all the wrong lessons

The overwhelming majority—84%—were for minor violations, such as profanity.

Wait, what? They’re monitoring kids’ personal social media accounts and disciplining them if they use profanity?

On their PERSONAL social media accounts?

Fuck that noise. If I had a kid in one of these little thought-crime schools, I’d tell him to post something profane, then sharpen my litigation knives and wait for the school official that dared try and do something about it.

Anonymous Coward says:

They also assume this pervasive surveillance will result in safer schools,

It is more likely to result in more dangerous schools, as troubled pupils remain silent, and in effective solitary confinement, rather than talking with others. That puts them well on the spiral to self destructive or violence against others to end their problems.

Anonymous Coward says:

red herring

It’s as if the school administrators have forgotten what it was like when they were in school. By the time they’ve reached middle school age, most mischievous kids have already figured out how not to get caught. Students are sure to respond to this surveillance by denying that they have any social media accounts, or worse yet, offering up one to be monitored, while keeping their real accounts hidden from the school. It’ll be no different from the way they talk and act when an authority figure is in the room compared to when they’re not. Wasn’t Eddie Haskell doing this way back in the 1950’s?

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: want safe schools?

Round the clock monitoring of students will create jobs!

And it can possibly create demand for robots and AIs.

Think of the children!

The round the clock surveillance can eventually be morphed into an incredible family surveillance program so that we can keep all members of society safe.

Please remember that firearms make excellent gifts for the entire family. Family packs available at participating retailers. Check out the new Starter Guns sized just right for the little ones. With optional high capacity accessories. Please use firearms responsibly when drinking. The NRA offers discounts to those who can show proof of mental impairment or illness.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: want safe schools?

They are worse than useless as security measures for high traffic areas. Guess what a large line in front of a metal detector means? A target rich environment with choke points for those depraved enough to shoot.

The places they work specifically involve low traffic by design – since if people freely enter and leave say a prison or military base regularly you have bigger problems with basic functionality.

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

Re: want safe schools?

*Using surveillance as a protection mechanism is like the argument that to stay safe from guns your need more guns.

God damn insane.*

It’s fun to just insult those you disagree with, isn’t it? Much easier than actually talking to them and maybe even have the maturity to politely disagree with each other.
Actually looking at history and the data around the claims you’re making of course completely destroys your claim so that’s clearly not an option.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: want safe schools?

Here is some insight from someone who runs a school camera system. Cameras are a protection mechanism but only against lawsuits. Parents are more than happy to sue the school if they think they can get money out of it. Most of the time, the footage shows that the school was following procedure. Protecting against a single lawsuit pays for a camera system and there are usually several incidents a year. People say that it is the schools fault for all the additional security but it really is the litigious nature of everyone that causes the problem. Schools are doing these things because it is more expensive not too. But on the other side for the sake of argument, there are those that abuse that power.

Anonymous Coward says:

There is something basically psychologically wrong with people who believe it is their duty to track and control what everybody, especially kids, do and say since it is highly probable that whomever it will for certain do something at some time that the trackers do not approve of.

Until this desire for a small group of nut cases is address there will be no freedom for anyone as the world will regress back to a feudalistic system that will be even more invasive and intense than the Ottomans. Note the negative effects of the Ottomans, after 200 years in the Ukraine, has still not been flushed down history’s sewer of hate.

Unfortunately, that is not the worst it can get for after all there could be develop a negative combination of Ottoman feudalism and Aztec war. History does not necessarily flow toward the positive but can and often has reversed and flows toward the negative.

The latter concept can be understood by reading the series Aztec by Jennings.

Just think of what a cannibalistic and total control society would be like. Where people were raised like cattle for the pleasure of consumption by the elitists.

Dan (profile) says:

Expectation of privacy?

These programs are deployed under a number of faulty assumptions, not the least of which is students have zero expectation of privacy.

Since the part that appears to concern you the most (since you spent the lion’s share of the article discussing it) is the social media monitoring, what expectation of privacy do students have there? What expectation of privacy should they have? I believe the correct answers to both of these questions are close enough to "none" as makes no difference. This has nothing to do with "students", and everything to do with "social media".

What you post to Facebook is public, and it never truly goes away. This is true whether you’re an adult or child, student or not.

The false assumption in play is that students have no First Amendment rights. While courts have limited those rights when students are at school, there’s nothing that limits them when they’re off-campus and not at a school activity.

fairuse (profile) says:

Public School System is Child Protection Services Rebranded

If anyone has had the misfortune too have their lives monitored by "Child Protection Services" then I wish you luck. The surveillance described here sounds like the next step of that service. It has all the right words. The source article at "Education Week" is a must read as it has more detail about "child protection" theory.

Family Court is now in your life even if you never did anything to your child. The school headmaster is the judge. Educators are the shrinks.

I never went to middle/high school so I may have read this wrong.

Gerald Robinson (profile) says:

Yet more school stupidity!

Today schools fail in their primary duty-to produce a reasonably well rounded citizen who can successfully support themselves. Implied in the US Constitution is that each person is responsible for their own life and wellfare. This includes being armed and if necessary shooting bullies. Over protection leads to a needy population out of touch with reality. The Green New Deal is an example.

The only way to prevent abuse of shopping and false data is to prohibit its collection and disemation. California has taken a start in banning facial recognition, because of its inaccuracy. It isn’t good enough of one person is saved at the cost of another person’s life being destroyed!

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