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Under digital surveillance: how American schools spy on millions of kids

Fueled by fears of school shootings, the market has grown rapidly for technologies that monitor students through official school emails and chats

by Lois Beckett

Part 3 - How it works

In Florence, South Carolina, school officials intervened after a middle school student started writing about suicide while working on an in-class English assignment. The phrases she typed in a Google document triggered an alert from Gaggle, the surveillance company working with the school district. “Within minutes”, the student was pulled out of class for a conversation with school officials, according to Dr Richard O’Malley, the district superintendent.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, the school district’s chief information officer had to call the police in the middle of the night to conduct a wellness check on a student who had been flagged by Gaggle for writing about self-harm. The situation was serious enough that the student was hospitalized to receive mental health services, the chief information officer, Sarah Trimble-Oliver, said.

In rural Weld county, Colorado, a school official got an alert from GoGuardian, a company that monitors students’ internet searches, that a student was doing a Google search for “how to kill myself” late one evening. The official worked with a social worker to call law enforcement to conduct an in-person safety check at the student’s home, said Dr Teresa Hernandez, the district’s chief intervention and safety officer. When the student’s mother answered the door, she was confused, and said that her child had been upstairs sleeping since 9pm. “We had the search history to show, actually, no, that’s not what was going on,” Hernandez said.

Federal law requires that American public schools block access to harmful websites, and that they “monitor” students’ online activities. What exactly this “monitoring” means has never been clearly defined: the Children’s Internet Protection Act, passed nearly 20 years ago, was driven in part by fears that American children might look at porn on federally funded school computers.

As technology has advanced and schools have integrated laptops and digital technology into every part of the school day, school districts have largely defined for themselves how to responsibly monitor students on school-provided devices – and how aggressive they think that monitoring should be.

Schools have faced lawsuits by parents of students who have committed suicide and by parents of children who have been cyberbullied, said Vance, the student privacy expert.
Schools are almost in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. If they choose to be more privacy protective they could be sued, but on the other hand, they could be sued for over-surveilling,” she said.

Bark’s decision following the Parkland shooting to give away free email, chat and shared document monitoring to any school district that wanted it was partly altruistic, an effort to respond to a horrifying crisis, and partly strategic, with the hope that providing a free service for school districts would make it a trusted brand with parents, helping sales of its for-profit parent surveillance products, which it markets for $9 a month, said Titania Jordan, the company’s “chief parenting officer”.

Other companies, some of which offer schools human analysts who help review the automated alerts, charge districts thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

The amount American public school districts spend on email and document monitoring services appears to have increased sharply from 2013, the year after a mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, to 2018, from nearly $4m to more than $8m, according to an analysis of purchasing contracts between just two major monitoring companies, Gaggle and Securly, and roughly 250 school districts. These numbers appear to be an undercount of the full size of the market, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, the progressive advocacy group that compiled and analyzed the purchasing records.


As of 2018, at least 60 American school districts had also spent more than $1m on separate monitoring technology to track what their students were saying on public social media accounts, an amount that spiked sharply in the wake of the 2018 Parkland school shooting, according to the Brennan Center.

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