Schools must weigh the benefits and consequences of surveillance technologies

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As more school districts and schools adopt technologies that can continuously monitor students, state boards of education must be aware of the potentially negative effects of surveillance and deploy policies to mitigate them, according to a new report from the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).

The report, “School Surveillance: the Consequences for Equity and Privacy,” examines the double-edged sword presented by the growing use of surveillance technologies in K-12 schools. The report was written by J. William Tucker, data and technology legal fellow for NASBE, and Amelia Vance, NASBE’s director for education data and technology.

Despite unmistakable benefits of surveillance technologies—its effectiveness in curbing cyber-bullying, for example—policymakers should create “guardrails” around school surveillance to ensure that equity and privacy are not undermined by them, Tucker and Vance say.

The reports looks at the diverse range of surveillance technologies deployed in many schools, including surveillance cameras (used by 75 percent of all K-12 schools in the U.S.), internet use and device monitoring tools, and biometric scanners.

School districts “clearly” are using surveillance technologies for many good reasons, according to the writers. However, there are many ways monitoring technologies in schools can be abused.

“If schools continue to embrace the potential benefits that accompany surveillance technology, state policymakers must be prepared to confront, and potentially regulate, the privacy consequences of that surveillance,” the writers say. “Decisions about whether to use surveillance should weigh the potential negative consequences of students becoming accustomed to surveillance or taking extreme measures to avoid it.”

One obvious potential consequence is that students under surveillance may feel they are in a less nurturing, less comfortable learning environment, disrupting the trust and cooperation that a learning environment requires, according to the report.

Despite the potential benefit of deterring bad behavior, monitoring technologies may also encroach “on the space to voice opinions and challenge convention,” the report states.

“If students feel as though they cannot step outside the mainstream for fear of ridicule or are afraid to ask a question because their ignorance may be captured forever in the virtual cloud, then surveillance has gone too far,” the writers say.

It is crucial that policymakers consider how different types of surveillance may censor students’ expression or actions and weigh the costs and benefits before implementing a particular technology in their state or district, Tucker and Vance caution.

Surveillance technologies in schools may also create or worsen inequities. Students whose parents can afford to buy nonschool devices will feel freer to communicate, while students who depend on school-distributed devices may feel more inhibited to express “outside the box” views or even feel they are more likely to face negative consequences for these behaviors, according to the researchers.

The report pointed to a one-to-one school laptop program in a heavily Hispanic community in Arizona, where surveillance concerns hindered families from using it. Because they had to sign forms confirming that they understand their school was monitoring devices for inappropriate usage, families viewed the devices as a threat to family privacy and security.

Schools and districts must cultivate the trust of skeptical parents by being transparent about what information is being collected, how it used and how it helps protect children, the report says. Data governance policies must spell out these key questions on student data collection, the writers said.

Increased surveillance in schools can exacerbate the disparities in disciplinary actions and the problem of bias simply by uncovering more instances of minor infractions. The writers point to statistics that show that black students during 2013-14 were 2.3 times more likely than white students to be referred to law enforcement or arrested as a result of a school incident.

“It is essential that any discussions about surveillance take into account how it may further discipline disparities and find ways to mitigate and avoid them,” the writers assert.

Future technologies may also present issues that schools will have to grapple with. “There is the danger of technology turning tattle-tale, as opposed to being a passive record of activity,” the writers state, noting that there are monitoring technologies that can send emails to administrators, teachers or parents to report on a student visiting an inappropriate Web site.

“Video surveillance may soon be able to automatically analyze the footage recorded and, using facial recognition technology, note breaches of school policy in each students record,” according to the writers.

Tucker and Vance conclude that, at its core, surveillance technology has the potential to channel both positive and negative outcomes. It isn’t wrong to view new, potentially invasive technologies with a skeptical eye because of possible abuse.

At the same time, they say, the technologies that monitor school children might also hold the key to unlocking their individual promise and protecting them from dangers on- and offline.

Since surveillance is here to stay, policymakers should “create guardrails that realize the positive effects of surveillance while protecting privacy and equity in a deliberate, responsible and measured way.” Training, they say, is an indispensable component of implementing such guardrails.

State boards of education, then, have to be advocates and trusted counselors in explaining the value of surveillance to parents and that the benefits of surveillance will not come at the expense of students’ well-being, the writers conclude.

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