How to walk the fine line between student safety and privacy

Educators are in a unique position to effectively communicate the goals and limitations of monitoring technology
By: | January 3, 2022
Ross Young

Ross Young

Mental health is an ongoing crisis that is having a devastating impact on millions of children and teenagers nationwide—with no signs of slowing down, it’s something that the nation can no longer ignore.

In fact, a national children’s mental health emergency has been declared by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association. Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose between 2010 and 2020 and by 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24, the American Academy of Pediatrics has found.

Today, the three organizations attribute the worsening of the crisis to stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing societal unrest.

With this information in hand, it’s undeniable that we have an obligation to help protect our children and teenagers. While many safety measures can and should come from the family level, it’s also up to schools to take the necessary action.

Ensuring safety in a digital world

In most states, teachers and other school employees are “mandated reporters,” which means they have a legal obligation to report signs of child abuse or neglect to authorities. This is a widely understood and accepted legal standard–when an educator suspects that a child is being physically harmed, it’s critical that the proper steps are taken to address the situation.

Today, in the age of remote and hybrid learning, the concept of mandated reporting must evolve to meet the needs of the digital world. With young people increasingly spending more time online, combined with the rapid rise of mental health concerns and suicide rates, we need to do more than just report physical signs of child abuse and neglect. We also need to take into consideration any indicators of potential acts of violence or self-harm.

This is where advanced monitoring technology has the capability to identify students who are at-risk based on what they do or say in their digital lives.

Problems with privacy concerns

Since the onset of the pandemic and remote learning, school systems across the country have adopted different forms of monitoring technology to help ensure student safety. In most cases, this technology identifies and flags early indicators of potential acts of violence (such as school shootings) or self-harm, including suicide notes, concerning conversations in chatrooms, and more.

In response to the adoption of this type of technology, there has been an influx of concerns surrounding privacy violations and unnecessary surveillance. Some parents and privacy groups believe that monitoring technology is just a way to spy on young people and expose their private matters, such as sexual orientation or gender identity.

This is far from the truth. Rather than constantly watching what students are doing online, good monitoring technology uses AI that triggers alerts only when someone types a word that is considered an indicator of risk. From there, a team of trained moderators assesses whether the student in question is genuinely at risk and, if so, notifies the appropriate school in confidence. When working with technology providers that offer these key features, parents and students don’t need to worry about their privacy being compromised.

For the safety of children and teenagers nationwide, it’s time for the conversation around potentially life-saving monitoring technology to change. Despite the criticism, it is simply not designed with the intent to violate students’ privacy or surveil their every move.

Critical role of school employees

While it’s clear that some parents and privacy groups are not in favor of monitoring technology, most educators recognize its ability to protect students.

For this reason, it’s important for school employees—from principals to teachers to counselors—to be fully up-to-speed on the capabilities of the monitoring technology being used at their schools, and the level to which the technology provider is committed to data privacy. Trusted by students and parents alike, educators are in a unique position to effectively communicate both the goals and limitations of monitoring technology, including what information can and cannot be shared, whether there is an option for parents to opt out, and more.

On the flip side, technology providers have a responsibility to equip school employees with the necessary resources and tools to educate themselves and others on the subject. Technology providers must of course continue to be vigilant about privacy concerns, participating in data privacy certification programs such as iKeepSafe and fine-tuning their approach to balance privacy concerns with safety.

Path forward

In the end, an outright dismissal of the benefits of monitoring technology can, quite literally, cost young people their lives—especially in the face of increasing mental health concerns.

To effectively protect young people in today’s complex, digital world, it’s critical to recognize that monitoring technology provides the needed guidance to keep our kids safe. Additionally, we must make the necessary changes to reflect our current environment, from rethinking standards and expectations for mandated reporting to educating parents and privacy groups on the true role of monitoring tools.

When it comes to ensuring the safety of young people, a good offense is better than a good defense.

Ross Young is senior vice president and general manager of Linewize North America, an ed-tech company.