Wake County expands monitoring of students’ school computers

The Wake County school system is expanding the use of digital surveillance software to spy on students’ computers for signs of suicide, self-harm, threats of violence and other dangerous behavior.

By the end of March, nine Wake County schools will be in a pilot program monitoring school email and Google Drive accounts for inappropriate words and images that are flagged for further review.

While the monitoring is raising privacy issues for some groups, Wake says the program using software by Gaggle has saved students’ lives.

“Our superintendent (Cathy Moore) has backed this,” Marlo Gaddis, Wake’s chief technology officer, said at a February webinar explaining the state-funded program to other North Carolina school districts. “She and I both believe that if there is a way to help students, if we can save one student through the use of Gaggle then it is worth that, and we’ve saved some.”

The program started last spring in Wake at Knightdale High School. It’s now also in Willow Spring High School; Holly Grove, Holly Ridge and Neuse River middle schools; and Buckhorn Creek and Knightdale elementary schools.

“Our work to create safe, supportive and nurturing learning environments is an ongoing partnership with students and parents,” according to a message provided to Willow Spring High families before the program started Feb. 14. “The work includes building trusting relationships, sharing concerns and monitoring student behaviors at home, in school and online.”

The program will start Monday at Holly Springs High and later this month at Lake Myra Elementary.

XT4A3895-HighRes.jpg
Laptop computers were given to families so students could use them at home at this event on Aug. 17, 2020 at Apex High School. Some Wake County schools are in a pilot program to monitor what content students have on those computers. Wake County Public School System

Civil liberties concerns

Civil rights groups aren’t happy though with the program.

“School districts are obligated to provide all students with full and equitable access to education, including learning technology tools, which is only possible if students’ privacy and that of their families is protected,” Ann Webb, senior policy counsel for the ACLU of NC, said in an email Wednesday.

“Student safety is always a priority, but we have questions about whether the claims made by surveillance companies about the safety benefits of monitoring students’ personal communications are supported, and we have concerns about whether such surveillance causes other unintended harms.”

Gaddis said a review will be done before determining whether to continue the program next school year and/or expand to more schools in North Carolina’s largest district. She said they’ll want feedback from parents, students and the schools.

NC funding student monitoring

Wake is partnering with Gaggle, a Texas-based digital student safety management company, for the state-funded program. The General Assembly appropriated $1 million in federal COVID aid in 2020 and $5 million in 2021 for the state’s schools to use Gaggle’s software.

Gaggle has rapidly expanded to now serve 1,500 school districts across the country and 68 schools and districts in North Carolina. The company says that equates to more than 440,000 students protected in North Carolina and more than 5.5 million students across the nation.

Gaggle’s list of North Carolina users include Durham Public Schools and the Johnston County school system. Individual charter schools using Gaggle include Envision Science Academy and Exploris School in Wake County and Reaching All Minds Academy in Durham.

The use of digital surveillance has soared during the coronavirus pandemic amid concerns about rising mental health issues and suicide attempts by students. The monitoring has become easier now that schools have given laptop computers for students to use at home and at school.

Jeff Patterson, founder and CEO of Gaggle, said the program acts as an early-warning system because many parents don’t realize that their children need help until the software identifies a problem.

“Gaggle is just one piece of the solution to identify the kids who are struggling the most to get them the resources to overcome those mental health challenges,” Patterson said in an interview Wednesday.

At its February webinar, Gaggle presented statistics from the 2020-21 school year, such as how it notified North Carolina schools of more than 23,000 incidents. Those incidents discovered 43 suicide notes, and Gaggle says 113 student lives were saved.

Other Gaggle statistics for North Carolina schools in the 2020-21 school year include:

An 81% increase in alerts about suicide and self-harm.

A 58% increase in alerts about violence toward others.

An 118% increase in alerts about nudity and sexual content.

Gaggle says the data is based on incidents per 10,000 students to adjust for how many more schools it worked with last school year.

Identifying warning signs

In Wake County, Gaggle will search the district-provided email account, Google Drive and Google Calendar on technology used by students.

Gaggle won’t monitor students’ private email accounts or their personal social media. But Wake warns that students will be held accountable for having inappropriate material if they allow their phones to upload pictures and movies onto their district Google Drive account.

Examples of things that will be flagged include:

Content reveals use, possession or sale of alcohol, tobacco or drugs of any kind.

Content reveals any situation indicating undue stress or harm as the result of the repeated actions by another with the intent to harm or distress..

Content contains professional pornography, sexual activity or nude and/or pornographic images/videos of possible minors.

Content contains use of profanity or vulgar language not used in a published work.

Content reveals thoughts or intentions of self-harm, suicide and/or depression.

Content reveals threats of violence toward individuals or the student body, physical altercations or abuse.

The software flags issues that are sent 24/7 to a Gaggle team that includes social workers, educators and therapists to review. The team determines the severity of the threat and notifies the school district.

Gaddis, Wake’s chief technology officer, said the monitoring program is seeing positive results.

“We have had a few students who’ve been at risk of suicidal ideation that we’ve been able to address with their families and get them help, not just from Knightdale but from other schools,” Gaddis said in an interview.

No right to privacy

But some privacy and civil rights advocates say they’re worried that schools are going too far with the digital monitoring.

“Despite their increased use, self-harm monitoring systems are an unproven technique for effectively identifying and assisting students who may be considering self-harm simply based on their online activities,” according to a report released in September by The Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington D.C. based think tank.

The Future of Privacy Forum also says these computer systems often inaccurately or mistakenly flag student content and over-collect confidential data.

Wake students, though, have no expectation of privacy when they’re using school devices and resources, according to revisions to the technology policy approved by the school board in December.

“Our board policy does say that students may be monitored,” Gaddis said.

Patterson, the CEO of Gaggle, said school districts have the responsibility to monitor what’s in a student’s district email or district provided drive.

“The reality is the adults need to know when kids are suffering and they’re not always going down to the office and talking to the counselor,” Patterson said. “I don’t understand how you can put privacy over safety of students.”

This story was originally published March 16, 2022 4:59 PM.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.

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