Column: Safety and surveillance in age of school mass shootings

More surveillance to try to reduce school violence blurs lines between educators, police.
Mourners bring flowers as they pay tribute at a memorial for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on February 25, 2018. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS) 1263126
Mourners bring flowers as they pay tribute at a memorial for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on February 25, 2018. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS) 1263126
Published January 11

The recently released report by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission recommends sharing information about children’s mental health and disabilities with threat assessment teams and allowing school resource officers easier access to students’ records. The proposals may be intended to protect students, but their actual effects are often quite different and can make it difficult for parents and students to discern where the school ends and the police begin.

The commisson’s report follows a new state law passed last year following the massacre at Stoneman Douglas that left 17 dead. The law requires the newly created Florida Department of Education Office of Safe Schools to coordinate with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to provide a centralized, integrated data repository and data analytics resources that will increase access to children’s data, including data from “social media; [the] Department of Children and Families; [the] Department of Law Enforcement; [the] Department of Juvenile Justice; and Local law enforcement.”

In effect, the commission’s report and the new state law require that Florida schools surveil students and share the surveillance information with law enforcement. This coordination mirrors many recent state school safety proposals, which call for increased surveillance in an attempt to reduce school violence and student self-harm.

Both educators and the police have important roles to play in protecting public safety. But confusing those roles can do more harm than good. Children learn best when they are in a trusting, supportive environment. Fear of arrest can undermine students’ trust in teachers, reducing their willingness to report circumstances when a classmate might pose a threat to themselves or others.

The commission also recommended that students with “severe behavioral disabilities” undergo school threat assessments. But studies show that school surveillance can disproportionately affect students with disabilities and students of color. A U.S. Department of Education report revealed that, while black students accounted for 15 percent of the student population as a whole, they were subject to 31 percent of arrests.

Particularly in the wake of tragedies like the one at Parkland, students who have learning disabilities or are not neurotypical can often be labeled as potential “threats,” based on little to no evidence. In Oregon, a high school student with autism was subjected to daily searches and eventually placed in night school because a school librarian overheard someone insult him as a potential “school shooter.” These kinds of recommendations can make it harder for students to receive an education and may force parents to choose between informing the school of all relevant health conditions or protecting their child from stigma at school.

School administrators have been bombarded with advertising and sales pitches for social media monitoring services and facial recognition software, marketed as necessary for keeping their students safe. However, experts have raised serious doubts about the efficacy of this technology and independent data is scarce. Monitoring social media has been reported to prevent students from harming themselves, but there is little evidence that this type of surveillance identifies students who are contemplating violence toward their school communities.

Surveillance technologies can engender a feeling—and reality—of being constantly watched at school and online. In using them, schools run the risk of eroding their students’ trust and dampening student autonomy and creativity, not to mention their willingness to come forward when something is actually wrong.

Other measures, such as anonymous reporting apps or see-something-say-something programs, can provide more effective threat prevention.

Often, schools are the first places that students receive mental health services or find trusted confidantes in teachers and advisors. Criminalizing normal teenage behavior because it happens online or simply because we have more robust monitoring systems runs the risk of pushing students who might already be on the edge into the criminal justice system, which can affect them for the rest of their lives.

Policymakers and school district leaders should talk with their communities, especially parents and students who may be disproportionately affected by these changes. Parents must feel empowered to ask about which information their school collects and how it will be used.

We all want to keep our schools safe. But we also want to make sure that our schools remain schools.

Sara Collins is a policy counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum’s Educational Privacy Project. Amelia Vance is the director of the Education Privacy Project and a policy counsel. The Future of Privacy Forum is a nonprofit based in Washington that focuses on issues involving data privacy and responsible data practices.

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