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Privacy Experts Say The Trade-Offs Of Tech To Track Kids In School Aren't Worth It


It's back-to-school time. And for many students, this year is bringing more surveillance than ever before. You see, schools nationwide are investing in new security technologies. And that's what we're going to be talking about in this week's All Tech Considered.


CHANG: In response to the Parkland shooting a year-and-a-half ago, Florida is using a new database to centralize information about potential threats. That has some worried that school security efforts could come at the cost of students' privacy. Jessica Bakeman of member station WLRN reports.


JESSICA BAKEMAN, BYLINE: Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is showing reporters around a busy room at Miami-Dade County's school police department.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Simply said, this system allows us to have real-time eyes on 18,000 cameras in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

BAKEMAN: A dozen screens cover the wall, showing live video feeds. There's a map of gunshot activity throughout Miami-Dade. One screen shows a satellite view of the county with little car icons moving around.

CARVALHO: This is our brand-new technology of GPS tracking on all school buses.

BAKEMAN: All 1,060 of them. Officers are also monitoring an app school leaders want people to use to report potential threats, even anonymously. It was created in the wake of Parkland.

CARVALHO: Our ability to collaborate, cooperate and rely on parents and students themselves is the best solution.

BAKEMAN: The app is one of the main components of a new database just launched by Florida's Department of Education. It's the state's answer to a problem policymakers have been trying to solve since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In that case, people who had concerns that the confessed shooter was dangerous weren't always working together. Now there's more information in one place.

The Florida Schools Safety Portal includes some data about students' disciplinary and mental health care histories, along with flagged social media posts. Civil rights groups say all that surveillance comes at the cost of students' privacy. And parents are worried about how a mistake or even a misunderstanding could show up in the new database and follow their kid into the future.

ERIC: We were just, like, messing around with the BB guns inside of my room.

BAKEMAN: Eric (ph) is a 10th-grader in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. We're not using his family's last name to protect his privacy. He says last March during spring break, his friends came over, and they were playing with a plastic pellet gun.

ERIC: And one of them takes a picture of me holding it up in the air.

BAKEMAN: In the picture, Eric is sitting at his desk with an Airsoft rifle designed to look like an AR-15. It's propped up on the arm of the chair, pointing at the ceiling. He's looking at the camera. Eric's friend captioned the photo, don't come to school Monday.

ERIC: A lot of people these days just make dark humor jokes about a bunch of tragedies for the comedy of it.

BAKEMAN: According to police reports, his friend then sent it to people on Snapchat. One of them reported it to the school district.

ERIC: I don't think he really had the intention of getting me in trouble.

BAKEMAN: But Eric did get in trouble. Two police officers and Eric's principal took him out of class to question him.

ERIC: I was terrified that they'd think that I wanted to shoot up the school. And I didn't want to at all.

BAKEMAN: Eric was recommended for expulsion. His parents fought it, explaining that he didn't take the picture, caption it or send it to anyone. Ultimately, he was removed from his A-rated magnet school to a different school with a C rating. His parents want to transfer him somewhere else, but they worry about what the records say, especially with this new school safety portal. Florida's Department of Education confirmed the database includes information about past incidents. This is Eric's dad, Ricardo.

RICARDO: Anybody that doesn't know the story will read this and say, there's no way in the world I'm going to put this child in my school.

BAKEMAN: I asked his mom, Patty (ph).

I'm curious of your feelings about technology and social media and apps and how they've changed since this experience.

PATTY: Ask him if he has any social media.

ERIC: I don't have any social media. So I've, like, lost contact with a lot of people, and I'm out of everything now.

BAKEMAN: A spokesman for Miami-Dade County Public Schools said the district takes threats seriously, investigates them thoroughly and disciplines students when necessary. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Bakeman in Miami.

CHANG: OK. So that is the view from Florida. And now here to talk about what's happening elsewhere in the country is Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Education team. Hey, Anya.


CHANG: So are we seeing other states other than Florida doing something very similar at schools?

KAMENETZ: Yes, this is definitely a national trend. In schools all over the country, there are companies that are scanning social media accounts as well as emails.

CHANG: What kinds of companies? What are they doing?

KAMENETZ: So Social Sentinel serves thousands of schools in all 50 states, and they focus on scanning social media accounts. And Gaggle serves nearly 5 million students, they say. And they scan internal student emails and documents that are created by students on things like Google Docs and Microsoft Office.

CHANG: Well, do you have a broader sense of how well these technologies actually work?

KAMENETZ: So that's controversial. I mean, school officials have told me they've gotten useful information, especially in deterring cases of self-harm. And these companies claim that they've saved hundreds of lives. Of course that's really hard to prove. One researcher I talked to, Jagdish Khubchandani at Ball State University, says the truth is school-related gun violence is so rare that there's actually zero evidence that any of these interventions truly work, whether it's metal detectors, cops in schools or these brand-new kind of AI systems.

CHANG: And as we just heard, there are some drawbacks to these technologies.

KAMENETZ: Yes. Privacy advocates are really up in arms. I mean, in this country, we seal most juvenile records at the age of 18. But now you're seeing students even younger than that who are creating these data trails in social media or even while doing their schoolwork. And those can trigger real-life consequences, not to mention that data can be breached.

And then there's a question of false alarms. I mean, kids use social media in all kinds of ways. As you can see with a child like Eric, social media can give a distorted picture. And at least one security expert I talked to, Tony Vargo (ph), told me he really doesn't feel like the tech is advanced enough to be useful. I also talked to a district superintendent in New Jersey who mentioned a post on social media about basketball raising alerts.

CHANG: Basketball? Like if someone's saying, I'm going to go shoot some hoops - the word shoot would be flagged.

KAMENETZ: Yes, exactly.

CHANG: Oh, wow.

KAMENETZ: And these kinds of things can - you know, they can overload school resources. This is a message he might be getting on his phone late at night.

CHANG: But I mean, isn't there always some tension between privacy and civil liberties? A lot of people would say, yeah, you know, there's a sacrifice in privacy. But this is about saving lives, so it's worth it.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And one of the things that's driving the adoption of this technology is that it's a liability issue for schools, you know? If something happened and there's some idea that they could have known, they could be liable.

But here's the thing. School safety experts will always tell you that schools are safer when students trust their peers, their teachers and other adults. And so in an atmosphere of enhanced surveillance, it's hard to say whether that really builds trust. And truly, everything depends not on the information that's coming in and the alerts but on what happens after a threat is identified. What are the supports in place for that?

CHANG: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thanks very much, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.