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Monitoring Student Online Behavior

Much attention is being given to school districts monitoring students’ internet activity, especially in light of reports released by non-profit organizations not closely connected with school district leadership. The noise of these reports ignites a media frenzy which in turn creates reports at the federal level. In an era where we have the most significant opportunity to improve the educational offerings and learning environment through technology integration, we are littered with noise creating unproductive distractions. In many of these reports and articles, the elephant in the report is the lack of district leader interviews and, quite frankly, a balanced delivery of the information. To this end, this article will attempt to offer a more informed perspective of monitoring student behavior based on experience as a district leader in one of the largest school districts in our nation.

Let’s start with CIPA. Congress enacted the Child Internet Protection Act in 2000. In it, districts are required to adopt and implement an Internet Safety Policy (ISP). This typically takes place at the board level, and the ISP outlines the expectations of students accessing the school networks and the consequences of violating these expectations. These policies are required by CIPA to include language about “access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet; the safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms and other forms of direct electronic communications; unauthorized access, including so-called “hacking,” and other unlawful activities by minors online; unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information regarding minors; and measures restricting minors' access to materials harmful to them.” Although CIPA doesn’t require the ‘tracking’ of Internet use by minors or adults, it does require filters or monitoring software. CIPA requires the policy to monitor students’ and adult activities to ensure these policy components are being addressed. The ultimate consideration of CIPA is that it only applies to schools or libraries receiving federal funds to support their access to the Internet via a program called E-Rate. So, to sum up, if a district, school, or library is receiving federal E-Rate funds, must comply with CIPA and develop an Internet Safety Policy that is monitored for compliance.

Online predators and cybercrime are rising, and schools are not exempt. The Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance Center posts a fact sheet on the U.S. Department of Education website, which outlines the area's districts and schools should be focused on to maintain the level of safety expected on school campuses. As the sheet alludes, cyberbullying most commonly occurs on social media, text messaging, instant messaging, and email. Since many students don’t have cell coverage in buildings, instant messaging on the computer is a primary way to communicate. It is no surprise that COVID has increased student internet use offering predators even more opportunities to target children. In 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children announced a 97.5% increase in reported incidents, and 2021 was no different, reporting 29.3 million reports of missing or exploited children. A noted study in American Psychologists details how predators connect with their victims by following their online behaviors. These online behaviors may be present in a public chat, an online game, or social media platforms. Almost half of the students offer information to their predators before being taken advantage of. Couple this with the rise in ransom attacks, allowing predators access to buy a child’s personal information to target them. Monitoring student behavior online helps those of us who are accountable for a student’s safety ensure students aren’t lured into a predator's net. Beyond what a student does online, even back-to-school posts from the district create vulnerability for children and should be reviewed.

Monitoring for school safety isn’t a new concept. The National Center for Educational Statistics survey describes an overall increase in school safety measures from 2009 to 2020. The survey highlights controlled access to buildings as the number one safety measure, with 97 percent of all schools implementing it. Security camera monitoring is a close second security measure, with 91 percent of schools reporting.

If these measures are being taken to secure students on campus, why wouldn’t a school consider taking measures to ensure students' safety online? A good question that has a lot of debate right now. But, much of the debate and articles are absent voices from the field.

A recent PBS publication talks about the noise created in the online student monitoring space and weighs the pros and cons of online monitoring. This noise can be muffled with an accurate law review and interviews with district administrators. The North Carolina Law Review published an article in 2019 about surveillance in K12 public schools suggesting that students most vulnerable to surveillance are from low-income families. The article also notes that digital technology may offer students great learning potential; it also offers student data to private companies and further states that a student's use of digital technology at school potentially leaves a data trail that can be available into the child’s adulthood. The article calls out monitoring software Gaggle and notes that the software can help in instances of cyberbullying or self-harm and states that products like Gaggle search for clues more accessible when trying to support students' safety and well-being. District administrators argue schools should monitor what students do online, citing student safety as one of the biggest concerns, and detecting threats early. Detecting early can make all the difference, as it did for a Texas district that was able to save a student from suicide by receiving a notification from Gaggle. Out of the state of Texas’ 1,200 districts, more than 200 use monitoring software, including Gaggle and Social Sentinel. The American School Superintendents Association (AASA) outlines how districts comply with federal laws for safe internet use by teaching information and digital literacy and using technology protection measures to promote responsible use while ensuring accountability. From the classroom, teachers report how much they like being able to monitor online and screen behavior by dropping into a student’s screen/online experience. Finally, a recent research survey reported that 82% of K-12 schools use monitoring software. So, if a law review district administrators, leaders, and teachers report the need for monitoring online student behavior and 82% of schools are already using monitoring software, why the noise? Privacy.

It should be noted that courts have ruled time and again there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a classroom for either student or teacher. Students have a lowered expectation of privacy, as determined by several US Supreme Court rulings. In a US district court in Kansas, two teachers sued the school district for invading privacy under the Fourth and 14th Amendments because they and their son changed clothes after school in their classrooms, and surveillance cameras videotaped them. The judge dismissed their case, citing no reasonable expectation of privacy should be expected in public school classrooms. Katz v United States tests whether a person’s privacy is expected. Katz was tested by the Kyllo v United States case, which invalidated the warrantless use of a thermal imaging device directed at a private home from a public street. In this case, the court grounded expectations of privacy in the Fourth Amendment to “secure ‘the privacies of life’ against ‘arbitrary power’” [Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 630 (1886)]and further explained that “legitimation of expectations of privacy by law must have a source outside of the Fourth Amendment, either by reference to concepts of real or personal property law or to understandings that are recognized and permitted by society.” [Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 144 n.12 (1978).] Reports and articles note privacy concerns and relate them to the Fourth Amendment, but courts have ruled on the expectation of privacy in public and at school, and there is none.

A recent research publication from Student Privacy Compass helps us understand student monitoring and shares that 12 of the 25 largest school districts in the country use monitoring technology for suicide prevention. The Future of Privacy Forum (PFP) released a new infographic that details how student monitoring works in school districts. The PFP suggests that “Education leaders must carefully weigh the risks and harms associated with adopting monitoring technologies, implement safeguards and processes to protect students who may be identified, establish a strong communications strategy that includes school staff, students, parents, and caregivers, and ensure that their schools’ and districts’ monitoring programs and service-delivery systems do not exacerbate inequities.” and outlines procedures by which a district may follow to adopt monitoring technologies with consideration of privacy concerns.

Student monitoring isn’t an exact science, whether online or in person. Districts must pay attention to equitable monitoring to ensure all students are treated equally. Still, by monitoring student behavior, districts can more accurately hold people in the building and online accountable. Monitoring student activities in campus buildings or networks not only increases the safety of students and faculty but also offers a sense of security to their families. In an era where public education is constantly scrutinized for safe campuses, district leaders are expected to do whatever it takes to keep students and faculty safe at school; that is precisely what they do every day of their careers!