Monitoring Students Online Called Counterproductive, Prone to Bias

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The number of school districts who have purchased social media monitoring software has climbed tenfold since 2013, from six to 63, but there is no evidence that it makes students safer, according to a Brennan Center for Justice study.

The drive to monitor student texting and other online behavior was powered by concerns about school shootings, and the failure to identify signs that a student or students might be planning violence, the Center said.

Monitoring social media is one of a broad range of surveillance technologies that are on the shopping list of school authorities, but it carries risks of “misinterpretation” and potential bias towards students of color, said the researchers.

The possibility of misinterpretation is particularly high for middle school and high school students, who are more likely to use slang and quotes from pop culture, and who may be especially motivated to evade adults’ prying eyes,” the study said.

“Difficulties in interpretation mean that social media monitoring of students is likely to lead to false positives.”

According to the study, which looked at contracts for purchases in 20 states on SmartProcure, a database of government purchase orders, four of those states stand out have reported the largest amount of surveillance monitoring software: Texas ($654K), Illinois ($321K), Florida ($258K), and California ($197K).

One school official told the researchers that “every school district across the state of Texas has been given some sort of direction to make these type[s] of moves.”

But the researchers warned that such tools are likely to disproportionately tag students of color as dangerous, and that those students will be punished more severely than white students who are similarly identified.

In fact, the study said, “research shows that as school security measures proliferate, students often feel less safe.”

It added: “Overbroad and unnecessary surveillance is likely to have a detrimental impact on students’ privacy and chill their ability to express themselves.”

The researchers warned that school districts should think twice before ordering surveillance tools “that promise far more than they can deliver while imposing real costs on the children they are meant to keep safe.“

The study was conducted by Faiza Patel, Rachel Levinson-Waldman, Jun Lei Lee, and Sophia DenUyl.

Read the full study here.

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