Anti-violence bill would require schools watch students' social media

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Aimed at reducing violence, a new bill taken up by the Senate would require schools to monitor students’ social media activity.

The Restoring, Enhancing, Strengthening and Promoting Our Nation’s Safety Efforts — or RESPONSE — Act was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the wake of several mass shootings in Texas, including one in an El Paso Walmart that claimed the lives of 22 people.

“As I visited with the families and offered my condolences following each of these attacks, there was one common refrain, one common request: please do something,” Cornyn said during his remarks to Senate colleagues.

The bill advocates for several new policies, including proposing a nationwide task force to investigate and prosecute those who buy or sell or firearms illegally. The legislation also seeks to increase the safety of students by requiring all schools receiving federal funding to install programs that can monitor the online activities of minors to identify individuals who are at risk of committing self-harm or extreme violence against others.

Such programs, which use algorithms to index public profiles on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, have grown in popularity in recent years as schools look for ways to take a more proactive approach to student safety and violence prevention. A review by the Brennan Center for Justice, which examined self-reported procurement orders from schools across the country, showed that the number of school districts purchasing such software rose from 6 in 2013 to 63 in 2018.

However, the organization said, “aside from anecdotes promoted by the companies that sell this software, there is no proof that these surveillance tools work.” The group also highlights such software’s propensity for error, which is “particularly high for middle school and high school students, who are more likely to use slang and quotes from pop culture, and who may be especially motivated to evade adults’ prying eyes.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has said that the monitoring of social media by schools and employers is a “grievous invasion of privacy” and warns that “electronic surveillance often goes well beyond legitimate management concerns.”

But Cornyn and his co-sponsors, who include Senate Republicans Martha McSally, R-Az.; Thom Tillis, N.C.; Joni Ernst, Iowa; Shelley Moore Capito, W.V.; and Tim Scott, S.C.; insist something needs to be done.

“We can and should do more to prevent these awful tragedies,” McSally said. “The RESPONSE Act would give law enforcement additional resources to identify potentially dangerous people, improve access to mental health treatment for those who need it, and make our schools safer.”

The act has also received endorsements from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Treatment Advocacy Center, and several law enforcement organizations.

“There’s no quick fix,” Cornyn said, “but there are commonsense measures that we can take to reduce mass violence and protect the American people.”

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