New research findings have education and privacy advocates calling for urgent action to ensure technology doesn’t infringe on students’ civil rights
Washington, DC – Today, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) released new research detailing the concerning impact of software that tracks students’ online activity on devices like laptops or tablets. With 89% of teachers reporting the use of such software in their schools (up five percentage points since last year), the report cites students being targeted for disciplinary actions, law enforcement contact, and being outed without their consent.
“We’ve found that nearly every school in the country is giving devices to students – and monitoring is hurting them,” says CDT President and CEO Alexandra Reeve Givens. “Our data shows that nearly half of teachers say they know of at least one student who has been contacted by law enforcement as a result of student activity monitoring. When you combine the resurgence of violence in schools with the mental health crisis among kids, schools are surveilling students’ activities more than ever. But these efforts to make students safer more often result in disciplining students instead.”
The new research shows that 78 percent of teachers whose school uses monitoring software say that students have been flagged for disciplinary action, and 59 percent were actually disciplined as a result. Additionally, 44 percent of these teachers report students have been contacted by law enforcement due to an alert generated by this technology.
“Certain groups of students, like those with disabilities, Black and Hispanic students, and LGBTQ+ youth, bear the brunt of the unintended consequences of student activity monitoring,” says Elizabeth Laird, Director of the Equity in Civic Technology Project at CDT. “Fortunately, federal laws already exist to protect these students, but they must be enforced – which is why CDT is calling on the U.S. Department of Education to protect students’ civil rights online in the same way they do in the classroom.”
Disciplinary actions that resulted from student activity monitoring fell disproportionately along racial lines, with 48 percent of Black students and 55 percent of Hispanic students reporting that they or someone they know got into trouble, compared to 41 percent of white students. 29 percent of LGBTQ+ students report that they or another student they know has had their sexual orientation or gender identity disclosed without their consent. Finally, students with a learning difference or physical disability were more likely than their peers to suppress their true thoughts online because they know they are being monitored.
Givens noted that these concerns only increase after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, since students seeking to access reproductive health websites or message friends about abortion options must now anticipate the risk of being monitored or potentially flagged for law enforcement in states where abortion is illegal.
In response to the new research, multiple influential civil society groups have signed a letter calling for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to issue a policy statement that clarifies the ways that student monitoring technology violates civil rights laws, condemns surveillance practices that run afoul of these laws, and states its intent to take enforcement action against violations that result in discrimination.
The letter has so far been signed by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the Center for Democracy & Technology, Civil Rights Corps, Common Sense Media, the Data Quality Campaign, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Freedom to Read Foundation, InnovateEDU, LGBT Tech, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Next Century Cities, the People’s Economic & Environmental Resiliency Group, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
The research was compiled based on surveys of parents, teachers, and students. You can find the full text of the research report and corresponding summary report here.
CDT is a 27-year-old 501(c)3 nonpartisan nonprofit organization that fights to put democracy and human rights at the center of the digital revolution. It works to promote democratic values by shaping technology policy and architecture, with a focus on equity and justice. The Equity in Civic Technology Project works to advance responsible civic technology use and strong privacy practices that protect the rights of individuals and families.