from the for-the-children??? dept
Minors attending public schools may find their rights are limited, due to a variety of factors: school safety, access to learning, etc. But they’re not nonexistent. This much courts have made clear, including the top court in the land.
Nevertheless, school administrators seem to feel students should be treated as suspects until proven otherwise. In response to school shootings and other on-campus violence, schools are operating more like prisons than like fonts of knowledge.
Public schools are often the “only game in town,” so to speak. If you want your child to attend a public school, you agree to abide by its rules — even if those rules include the abdicating of responsibility of scholastic discipline to cops or, under the realities of pandemic life, subjecting students engaged in distance learning to always-on surveillance. And that’s on top of the efforts of local law enforcement to convert students to grist for the criminal justice mill.
The ACLU has just released a report [PDF] that details how pervasive and pernicious this so-called “new normal” is. The information contained in this report should act as a warning to parents who still believe school life is pretty much the same thing they experienced two or three decades ago. More hopefully, it will persuade legislators to act on behalf of students, rather than a very profitable surveillance state, to protect the rights of those society considers to be its most innocent.
The rising tide of school shootings and COVID-19 has lifted all school surveillance boats. But there’s no reason we, as parents and Americans, should be willing to accept this as a “normal” result of these concerns. And we should be doubly upset that surveillance tech opportunists have preyed on the fear of everything from mass violence to [clutches pearls] cheating on everyday assignments to increase their profitability and market share.
So, what’s in the report? The expected: leveraging fear to increase sales and profits.
EdTech Surveillance companies have focused on stoking fear around student self-harm, suicides, and bullying.
Capitalizing on school safety concerns, lobbyists have secured over $300 million in federal
funds, allegedly to improve school safety. The EdTech Surveillance industry relies on these large pools of government funds to make their immediate monetary costs to schools either low or nonexistent.
No different than the 1033 program, which lowers costs to nothing for law enforcement agencies seeking to arm themselves with surplus military gear. No different than a variety of civil forfeiture programs, which allow cops to enrich themselves without actually having to do their job (the property is the suspect and the people formerly in possession of this property never face criminal charges). All the worst urges of governments are readily obliged. The barrier to entry is almost nothing. The increases in government surveillance are rarely challenged because they involve “the children.”
Governments love the extra control, especially when they get the first hit for free. Given these facts, it’s no surprise governments rarely follow up on these acquisitions, which means children are being subjected to additional surveillance for no perceptible net gain in school safety.
EdTech Surveillance companies make unsubstantiated overly broad and nonspecific claims. Gaggle, for example, asserts that its products are effective in “preventing suicides,” “preventing school violence,” “limiting bullying and harassment,” “stopping child abuse and harassment,” “stopping sexual abuse,” and “stopping childhood predators.
NetTalon asserts that its surveillance cameras, coupled with the other school safety interventions it markets, will “dramatically improve school safety against active shooters or other terrorist attacks.” In-depth reviews of research literature, including those commissioned by the U.S Department of Justice, and ACLU’s review of the empirical evidence, consistently find a clear lack of evidence that surveillance technology makes schools safer.
One associate principal I spoke to for this story says his district would receive “Questionable Content” email alerts from Gaggle about pornographic photos and profanities from students’ text messages. But the students weren’t texting on their school-issued Chromebooks. When administrators investigated, they learned that while teens were home, they would charge their phones by connecting them to their laptops via USB cables. The teens would then proceed to have what they believed to be private conversations via text, in some cases exchanging nude photos with significant others—all of which the Gaggle software running on the Chromebook could detect. Now the school advises students not to plug their personal devices into their school-issued laptops.
These companies proclaim their victory over threats to student safety. Meanwhile, students insist these extra layers of surveillance make them feel less safe or, at the very least, less comfortable with just being normal people engaged in normal conversations with their peers.
EdTech Surveillance may provide students with a false sense of security — a portion of students surveyed reported the school surveillance made them feel “safe” (40%) and “protected” (34%). Among some students, surveillance has the opposite effect, stoking fear and promoting anxiety — a portion of students reported surveillance made them feel “anxious” (14%), “exposed,” (15%), “paranoid” (13%), “violated” (12%), with a smaller portion reporting that surveillance in schools made them feel “unsafe” (7%) and “scared” (5%).
Approximately a quarter of students surveyed were concerned about how
surveillance could be used to discipline them or their friends (27%) and how it could be shared with law enforcement (22%).
These companies continue to thrive because “if it bleeds, it leads.” The same government officials and press outlets that push the false narrative that cities are less safe than ever are the same entities allowing surveillance tech firms to make big money by preying on irrational fears. That children are involved in these false narratives makes selling fear that much easier.
What is conveniently missing from the EdTech Surveillance companies’ marketing narrative is the larger context. According to David Ropeik, a consultant on the psychology of risk perception, the likelihood of a K-12 public school student being shot and killed at school is roughly 1 in 614 million. That is more than twice as unlikely as winning the top prize in the Powerball or Mega Millions lotteries.
In fact, data shows schools are a particularly safe environment for children. Nevertheless, as the EdTech Surveillance industry well knows, the emotional impact of fear can override the intellectual impact of statistics, which is why, according to the professional educators’ association Phi Delta Kappa International, a third of parents still fear for their child’s safety at school.
That’s the sort of thing that allows TSA agents to pretend it’s your breast milk or personal care products that threaten the safety of millions of travelers, even when they dispose of these “dangerous” products mere feet away from millions of travelers in trash cans located on the concourse. As experts have noted, the most significant steps of air travel safety involve things done to the planes themselves, like physical security measures affecting the cockpit itself.
And it’s the sort of thing that allows school-focused surveillance companies to thrive, even if their always-on surveillance has little to no effect on school safety. Most of the best mitigation involves physical efforts that have been in place for years, including the locking of school doors while students are in class. Adding surveillance isn’t the answer, but the low cost — along with the stoking of irrational fear — pushes administrators towards turning students into data points and eavesdropping on their online communications or shoulder-surfing their web activity.
When the barrier to entry has been erased via the easy availability of federal funds, few educators see the downside of increased surveillance, even if it’s unlikely the acquired tech will have any noticeable — much less provable — effect on student safety.
The EdTech Surveillance industry’s strategy here appears pretty clear: convince schools that, even if the benefits of its products are speculative, large pools of industry-driven, government-funded grants have often made its immediate monetary costs to schools either low or nonexistent. With that being the case, the argument follows, there is little to no risk in schools acquiring them.
The entire report is worth reading, even if it’s going to do terrible things to your remaining trust in public officials and your outlook for humanity as a whole in an era where advanced surveillance techniques are just a click or two away from mass implementation.
And I say that even as I admit there’s an overwhelming urge to do “something” about school safety. No education official wants to be put in the position of answering questions about school shootings or other acts of violence without being able to demonstrate they did all they could to prevent this from happening. The problem is these products simply don’t work. And, unlike doing nothing, they turn students into surveillance targets for the entirety of their school years, even as the tech fails repeatedly to prove it has any value other than turning students’ lives into an open book for the same people who may honestly feel it’s the least they can do to increase public safety.
And the rest of the surveillance tech world surely approves. Get kids used to always-on surveillance and it makes it that much easier to sell governments on extending this pervasive surveillance well into their adult years. Everybody wins but the people being surveilled. And that’s good enough for most governments, which have learned all the wrong lessons from school shootings and terrorist attacks.