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Equity in Civic Technology, Privacy & Data

Six Considerations Missing from the School Safety and Data Conversation

Across the country, education leaders and policymakers are searching for answers to a complicated and deeply-felt question: how to keep students safe, especially in the wake of school shootings. Many are turning to technology and data for the answers. Some schools and districts are experimenting with large-scale social media monitoring, security cameras with anomaly detection software, and increased data sharing across departments and with law enforcement. A 2018 Florida law requires education, mental health, juvenile justice, and social media data to be integrated in a central database and shared across agencies, including with law enforcement. Reports from the Federal Commission on School Safety and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission have made recommendations for increased data collection and digital surveillance of students, including social media monitoring, suspicious activity reporting, and data sharing with law enforcement.

States, districts, and schools may be under immense pressure to adopt new security measures, but rushing this process could hurt students more than it helps. Many data-driven initiatives that have been proposed or implemented are unproven and come with significant risks to students’ privacy, free expression, and other rights. Before ramping up data collection and digital surveillance in schools, decisionmakers should consider the real effects and unintended consequences of these measures on students and families.

Last month, CDT and the Brennan Center for Justice convened a group of school officials, policymakers, law enforcement officials, privacy and social justice advocates, and parent and student representatives to discuss the intersection of technology, school safety, and students’ rights. The workshop highlighted six considerations that are currently missing from mainstream reports and policymaking around school safety and data.

  1. An inclusive definition of school safety – The latest wave of school safety initiatives is a direct response to horrific, high-profile events—particularly mass shootings. Although these shootings are devastating, they are far from the only safety concerns students face. In particular, students of color have experienced disproportionate negative impacts from overbroad policing and surveillance in schools. The fear of being reported to law enforcement can also chill students from accessing mental health, special education, and other services. If school safety initiatives are not designed with a holistic and inclusive definition of safety in mind, they may be counterproductive and actually endanger the most vulnerable students.
  2. Policymaking informed by parents and students from all impacted communities – Policymaking around school safety should center the input and needs of students and their families; but students and parents are not a monolith—they represent a diverse range of experiences and points of view. Policymakers and education officials should affirmatively reach out to and engage underrepresented communities, particularly students and families of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by disciplinary, policing, and surveillance policies in schools.
  3. Engagement of CIOs and CPOs from the ground up – Chief information officers (CIOs) and chief privacy officers (CPOs) working in the education system can be valuable resources for helping education leaders charged with keeping students safe understand and assess the values, limitations, and risks of new technology and data initiatives. But CIOs and CPOs are often not involved early enough in the process of procuring new technologies or drafting school safety recommendations. This can lead to misallocation of resources (investing in technologies or services that do not effectively address a district’s safety needs) and implementation problems (addressing privacy and other risks that could have been mitigated at the procurement stage). Privacy and technical advice from CIOs and CPOs should be integrated into every step of adopting and implementing new data and technology initiatives, and should be taken into account when districts and states make school safety recommendations
  4. A plan for using and governing new data systems and technologies introduced in schools – Too often, institutions invest in new technology or data systems first, and figure out how to use and govern them later. That’s like ordering textbooks, investing in curriculum, and designing assessments before you’ve decided what you want students to learn. The problem that you are trying to solve should dictate the type of data collected and who can access it—not the other way around. To realize the benefits of data and technology while protecting students’ rights, data governance policies should include privacy and security protections, purpose limitations, data minimization, access controls, retention limits, and data deletion procedures. They should also account for how human decisionmakers should respond to the outputs of any automated systems.
  5. Understanding the limits of schools’ ability to predict safety incidents – Schools are being asked to do more than ever to predict and respond to safety concerns. In particular, schools are facing increased pressure to monitor and respond to off-campus activities, such as what students are saying on social media when they get home. Placing unreasonable burdens on schools to monitor students can detract from their educational mission.
  6. Research on the efficacy and limitations of data and technology-driven responses to school safety – Schools and districts should look for solutions that have a proven track record of improving school safety and students’ wellbeing. Many of the current trends in data and technology for school safety are experimental. For example, both the federal and Florida school safety reports emphasized methods of flagging or monitoring students who may be at risk of committing a violent crime like a mass shooting. However, the relative rarity of mass shootings makes predicting them—or predicting people’s intent to commit them—virtually impossible. While appropriately tailored and thoughtful data collection can be part of a holistic program to help address students’ needs, more data is not necessarily better. The feedback from our workshop overwhelmingly suggests that human interactions, not data collection, make the biggest differences in students’ wellbeing.

CDT is working to provide education leaders and policymakers with policy recommendations and technical guidance to ensure that data-driven school safety initiatives do not endanger the students they are intended to protect.