At a Bayfield school board meeting in December, three parents questioned how the district protects students. Weeks before, the Bayfield IT director, Bill Bishop, presented one method districts already use: cyber monitoring.
“There’s so much focus now on bullying, harassment and kids’ mental health ... this is just one tool that gives us an insight as to who may need additional help,” Bishop told The Durango Herald.
But as cyber monitoring – surveillance – becomes more pervasive, some ethicists and communities wonder if the monitoring goes too far.
School districts, including Bayfield, Ignacio and Durango, face increasing pressure to protect students from bullying, gun violence, self-harm and inappropriate content. Now, school security is a multibillion-dollar industry. As district IT directors weigh best practices, Fort Lewis College philosophy professor Justin McBrayer says communities should question moves toward cyber monitoring.
“As long as you care about treating kids the way they deserve to be treated, then you ought to ask this question,” McBrayer said.
Supporters say monitoring is just one tool to watch and help students. The U.S. government even required schools to implement monitoring to receive certain financial support under the Children’s Internet Protection Act.
Critics say cyber monitoring normalizes surveillance for children. Safety management platforms such as Gaggle and Bark claim positive impacts on school safety, such as saving 722 students from carrying out an act of suicide, according to Gaggle. But such claims are self-reported and the data are unverified by a third party.
Schools have poured $2.7 billion into school safety strategies, but the number of school shootings has remained steady or increased, according to a report by IHS Markit.
“If it turns out that this system of surveillance causes more harm than good, then we lost our reason for imposing it in the first place,” McBrayer said.
How it worksBayfield and Ignacio school districts track, filter and monitor every word that students write on school computers, school Chromebooks or Google Suite accounts.
The tracking doesn’t stop when students leave school property. If they use a school Chromebook at home, all their activity is tracked. When they log into Gmail on their cellphone, activity within Google applications is tracked. Schools block social media.
“The world we live in, you just want to make sure you’re there to prevent any incident from happening that could be hurtful to people, or you want to be able to help the kid,” Bishop said.
To encourage safety, Ignacio and Bayfield began using Gaggle and Bark in 2017. The companies track student online traffic 24 hours a day, scanning content for profanity or words such as kill, die, gun and drugs.
Company employees scan flagged content then alert schools of possible concerns. When necessary, school officials, and in some cases, law enforcement, decide how to proceed.
Incidents are flagged often. Over three months in Bayfield, Gaggle marked 106 possible concerns, mostly noncritical, and two situations that required some action with students, Bishop said. Since August in Ignacio, Bark flagged 460 issues, again mostly false positives, said Brian Crane, Ignacio IT director.
Durango School District 9-R’s monitoring system does not use artificial intelligence software, according to a statement from Julie Popp, the district’s spokeswoman. The system filters website access and records all student activity on school computers and cyber networks. Instead of receiving alerts from Gaggle, the district reviews data when a concern arises.
“We are doing what we believe we need to be doing. We do monitor and protect them and put in firewalls and safety nets,” Popp said.
Forced surveillance, potential harmSchools grapple with complicated issues of privacy, safety and education.
“There is definitely a Big Brother aspect associated with what we do, but it is more important for us to keep them safe than it is for them to have private email,” Crane said.
McBrayer said it can be ethical to track student activity, but there is a line.
“The default position is, you ought not be surveilling someone else unless you have a good reason. The real debate comes down to what counts as ‘good reason,’” the professor said.
When it comes to minors, in general, it is ethical to monitor them to protect them from threats such as gun violence and to prevent serious self-harm, McBrayer said.
“Preventing harm to others does justify our use of coercion or force,” he said. “Because that’s what’s happening – the kids are being forced to submit to this kind of surveillance.”
Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio make their monitoring systems clear in policies that parents sign off on each year. While they don’t make any promise about privacy on school property, whether online or physically, they also don’t explain the monitoring system directly to students.
The districts don’t include lessons about how cyber surveillance works – or how student activity is tracked in each district – in computer science classes. The school districts do, however, teach students about other online safety issues.
Durango also educates parents about online safety and plans to hold social media information sessions. Bayfield plans to have a social media-focused conversation cafe this spring.
Still, cyber monitoring systems mark a rapid change in school policy.
“In the old days, you would monitor by being visible in the hallways and just keep an eye on the kids. Now, you have to keep an eye on the kids and what they’re seeing on their screens,” Crane said.