Is K-12 School Surveillance Going Too Far?

Picture of Tara Gibson By Tara Gibson

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K-12 School SurveillancePressure continues to mount for K-12 schools when it comes to protecting and keeping those on school grounds safe. With increased school safety concerns ranging from cyber-attacks and school shootings to bullying and severe weather threats, K-12 schools and districts are turning to technology to give staff, faculty, students, and parents alike peace of mind. School technology has adapted throughout the years and today’s classrooms are unlike anything we’ve seen in the past. There are class websites, virtual lesson plans, mobile device programs, digital learning games, assessments and homework which are taking K-12 education to the next level.

But, with new technologies comes new potential consequences. School surveillance and its impact on student security and privacy is currently a trending topic in the education field. Commonly used to ensure student safety, K-12 schools are required to use straightforward school surveillance by basic internet monitoring and filtering in accordance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act. According to GovTech, “Surveillance is also a tool for keeping students on track with school-provided computers and devices, as well as for auditing schools for efficiency and tracking students for safety.”

So, when is school surveillance going too far?

School Surveillance: Facial Recognition Technology

States and K-12 schools are surveilling their students through social media monitoring, facial recognition cameras, and other emerging technologies that are being questioned in the context of a student’s privacy.

Recently a large school district in New York with eight schools and about 4,400 students announced they were launching a facial recognition software after finishing an installation of video cameras within the schools. According to EdScoop, this district spent $3.8 million of the $4.2 million Smart Schools Bond Act state grant “on security upgrades, which includes the facial recognition system, along with physical security enhancements to building entrances, such as bullet-proof greeter windows, panic buttons, a new visitor badging system and computer equipment. The district also hired new counselors, social workers and behavior intervention specialists.” The facial recognition system is now being investigated by the New York State Education Department to make sure this technology aligns with the district’s privacy policies.

Read More: How Education Leaders Can Fund School Safety Initiatives

EdScoop tells us the facial recognition system works “by comparing faces or objects found in video footage with objects like guns or people in a database of unwelcome visitors. Those people include level 2 or level 3 sex offenders, students who are currently suspended from school, anyone previously barred from school property, or anyone otherwise deemed a threat to school safety “based on credible information,”, according to the district.” When there is a match in the system this information is then forwarded to an administrator who ultimately makes the final call on how to respond to the situation. If a weapon, such as a gun, is detected the system automatically notifies the police and the school goes into a lockdown.

School Surveillance: An Invasion of Privacy?

Although the facial recognition system sounds efficient and was developed to keep students safe, some question the accuracy of the technology as well as the security and privacy implications of the system. A local resident and parent of one of the district’s students, Jim Shultz, and the New York Civil Liberties Union, raised these questions and were seeking answers on what policies would govern the technology’s use. “Schools should be safe places for students to learn, not spaces where they are constantly surveilled,” the NYCLU wrote. There were concerns that the information taken from the facial recognition technology would be shared with law enforcement agencies and immigration authorities and that even with the increased accuracy of many security technologies, facial recognition systems are still known to be inaccurate when identifying women, children, or non-whites according to EdScoop. NPR also shared that studies have shown that facial recognition often misidentifies dark-skinned people. 

The School Surveillance Debate

The Future Privacy Forum recently released this animated video which shows the potential harm surveillance technology can cause students and schools.

The video is great as it shows that specific goals of school safety should be seriously considered when districts are making decisions on which school safety technologies to implement. With surveillance there are privacy concerns on what data is being stored from a student’s online activities such as surfing the internet or posting on social media, and how long schools are able to store this information. Some students may feel like they’re being watched and not want to reach out for help if they are being bullied, for example. 

EdSurge says it best, “Schools need to slow down.” School surveillance and facial recognition have sparked debates in the education field on whether this technology is going ‘too far’ and ‘big brother is watching’, or if this is a viable solution to help prevent school safety threats.

There are many school safety technologies out there to help in the event of a school emergency. If your school is trying to prevent harmful weapons entering the premises, maybe consider installing metal detectors at school entrances. If your school is trying to tackle the growing bullying and cyberbullying problem among teens, an anonymous tip software may be the way to go. If your district is looking to enhance coordination with staff and first responders to improve emergency response times, a panic button application may be your solution.

Can you tell school safety fact from fiction? Find out what really helps keeps students safe during this free webinar on August 14th.  

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Written by Tara Gibson

Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12 education, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!

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