9 ways school leaders can protect privacy while protecting kids online

Administrators can track online activity for the most serious threats while ensuring students aren't victimized
By: | October 8, 2021

Monitoring is not quite the right word to describe the responsibility educators have when thinking about students’ online activity outside of school hours, says Justin W. Patchin, a co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

When districts distribute laptops and tablets, they can block students from accessing certain sites or apps. They should also try to ensure the devices are being used mainly for educational purposes, says Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

But administrators must also take personal privacy into account when considering around-the-clock tracking of what students are posting on social media in their free time, he says.

“Schools are better served to develop a positive culture in which students who observe concerning behavior feel comfortable reporting it to the school,” Patchin says. “That way, schools can intervene as opposed to lurking in the weeds and waiting for something to happen.”

For example, a school could detect that a student is being bullied online for being gay. Administrators should certainly inform parents of the harassment, but what if the student has not come out to their family?

That raises privacy issues. “Administrators have to think creatively about how to adjust behavior and not make things worse for the student being targeted,” Patchin says.

Mental health misconceptions

Tracking can be effective at alerting administrators to explicit statements about self-harm, such as “how to tie a noose.”

Checklist for checking up on students

When adopting monitoring technology, administrators can protect student privacy by ensuring their policies:

  1. Are based on methods that have been independently validated by mental health professionals.
  2. Define specific, clear goals for adopting a monitoring system.
  3. Accommodate existing school-based mental health resources and professionals who will provide support to any students in crisis.
  4. Have been transparently developed in consultation with experts and community stakeholders, particularly families, students, and teachers.
  5. Set clear policies on which data are collected, who has access to them, how they will be used, and when they will be destroyed.
  6. Establish who will review student information flagged by monitoring and who determines whether a flag is indicative of a true risk of self-harm.
  7. Include a robust training program for school officials responsible for handling sensitive student data.
  8. Set clear consequences, for individuals who violate data protection and sharing protocols.
  9. Do not stigmatize or reinforce biases against any groups of students based on race, religion, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, or other legally protected characteristics.

Source: Future of Privacy Forum.

But it can also raise false positives or expose students who may be struggling with mental health issues in private online conversations with counselors, says Amelia Vance, vice president for youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum.

Some technology can also be tripped up by slang, colloquialisms, and students joking around, she says.

This raises serious questions for administrators navigating online safety: “Is it actually going to help students with these issues other than when there are really obvious signs of a need for intervention,” Vance says. “Are you doing this in the context of a broader program?”

Flagging troubling online activity achieves little if administrators are not going to follow through with comprehensive support, she adds.

Vance’s organization offers guidance for schools in its latest report, “The Privacy and Equity Implications of Using Self-Harm Monitoring Technologies.” Administrators should:

Ensure they have sufficient school-based mental health resources to support students accurately identified through self-harm monitoring technology.

Develop a robust mental health response plan beyond simply monitoring students.

Have well-developed policies governing how schools will use monitoring systems, respond to alerts, and protect student information before they acquire the technology.

Policies and training are key because students struggling with mental health issues are too often labelled as potentially dangerous, Vance says.

“People with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violence,” she says. “There are a lot of biases we all have because they’re part of a common narrative, and we may be disadvantaging students by flagging them based on conclusions made by untrained administrators.”

Anonymous reporting software has proven to be highly effective technology in allowing students and others to identify potential threats—particularly when administrators respond with the appropriate help for the student in crisis, Vance says.

And there’s another solution:

“Creating trusting relationships with adults is the No. 1 way to help students with mental health issues or students who could end up being violent,” Vance says. “The way to create rusting relationships is not having students come to the principal’s office and saying to them, ‘We know what you did on your computer last night.’”

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