Keeping Schools Safe While Protecting Students’ Privacy

K-12

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Since 1970, 2,511 K-12 students have been wounded or killed in school shootings in the United States, and 2021 witnessed the largest number in a single year. School districts have adopted surveillance strategies that aim to anticipate threats to students’ safety, but privacy advocates are raising alarms that surveillance can harm innocent people who get caught in its net. School and district leaders can struggle to maintain both vigilance and privacy.

The Tension Between Security and Privacy

Nearly half of mass shooters leak their plans before they put them into action, prompting hopes that vigilance can prevent these tragedies. Federal and state authorities have encouraged districts to monitor threats to students’ safety. In 2018, for example, the Federal Commission on School Safety recommended that states, districts and schools “establish and provide training on a central suspicious activity reporting system that is continually monitored” and “allows anonymous reporting.” Most states require or encourage school districts to develop threat assessment policies or protocols.

Districts have turned to emerging technology for help. A growing number of districts use systems that scan social media accounts for keywords and employ algorithms to flag students who might pose a threat to themselves or others. Some are installing school surveillance cameras linked to artificial intelligence that aim to detect guns or spot unauthorized visitors on school grounds. Roughly two in three schools opt for a less high-tech solution like anonymous tip lines where community members can alert authorities to possible threats.

Critics of such measures argue that they can stigmatize or even criminalize unconventional behavior, mental illness or innocuous speech. School officials or law enforcement can read — and misinterpret — a student’s private communications, and a misguided threat assessment can become part of that student’s record. Critics note that the very presence of such measures can deter students from seeking help for depression or other mental health crises.

The heaviest burdens of such measures can fall on students of color, who are most likely to attend schools with heavy surveillance and be misidentified by flawed facial recognition or threat assessment algorithms. Threat assessment systems can also discriminate against students with disabilities by misconstruing their behavior as threatening.

Considerations for Education Leaders

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of student education records, allows schools and districts to share students’ personal information with relevant authorities in the event of health or safety emergencies.

In 2019, 40 organizations released Privacy Principles for Student Safety to ensure that safety measures “do not harm the students they are meant to protect.” Among the principles are recommendations to avoid discrimination, give informed administrators rather than impersonal algorithms the authority to make final threat assessments, and offer behavioral and mental health services.

In addition, the principles urge transparency: Surveillance policies should clearly communicate what information is collected, who will have access to it, how it will be used, when it will be destroyed and what consequences await those who violate data-sharing protocols.

State Policies That Strike a Balance

Several states have adopted laws that aim to balance safety and student privacy:

  • Colorado (R.S. 19-1-302) addresses data privacy measures that schools and service agencies must observe when they share such information as juvenile delinquency records, information concerning abuse and neglect, truancy information, mental health records and medical records.
  • Nebraska (B. 322) established the Safe2HelpNE anonymous school safety reporting line and requires that report line staff be trained in applicable confidentiality and privacy laws. It also provides that “any information in the possession of the threat assessment team shall remain separate from educational records and shall be considered security records.”
  • Utah’s State Safety and Support Program (53G-8-802) requires the state board of education to provide districts training on the types of student data they are permitted to collect and disclose to law enforcement and other support services.

The prospect of continued school violence presents education leaders with wrenching choices. State policy considerations can provide useful guiderails.

Author profile
Principal at Education Commission of the States | cvonzastrow@ecs.org

Claus oversees efforts to improve statewide longitudinal data systems and provide state-by-state data on STEM education. He has held senior positions in education policy and research for more than 17 years and has spent much of that time helping diverse stakeholders find consensus on important education issues. Claus is dedicated to ensuring that state leaders have the information and guidance they need to make the best possible decisions affecting young people.

Author profile
Senior Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States | zperez@ecs.org

As a policy analyst, Zeke tracks legislation related to statewide longitudinal data systems, school safety and postsecondary campus safety. He has been with Education Commission of the States since 2014. Zeke has a passion for local politics and enjoys following the varied policy approaches of city and state leaders.

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