Public schools in Baltimore are monitoring student activities online using software that recognizes certain words and phrases that then alert school officials that a student may be contemplating suicide.
The Baltimore Sun called the surveillance system “controversial,” adding that it was added to laptops during the pandemic, when students were using school computers at home.
“Since March, nine students have been identified through GoGuardian’s Beacon software as having a severe mental health crisis and were taken to an emergency room, according to Stacey Davis, the city schools coordinator of media and instructional technology. In at least two of those cases, the students had never had any mental health care,” the Sun reported.
Two recent reports cast doubt on the system, warning that it could be used to discipline for their private online activities and limit students’ free speech. The reports also noted that LGBTQ students could be unintentionally outed by use of the surveillance system.
Elizabeth Laird, director of equity in civic technology at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, co-authored one of the reports and told the Sun that “Privacy and equity was not being considered as much as it needs to be.”
GoGuardian has been used before for monitoring students’ online activity, but not for mental health issues. School officials told the Sun that they were trying to build relationships with students using the software.
The Sun’s editorial board published an article raising concerns about the software:
The city system apparently has no policies in place to govern what can — and can’t — be monitored on its thousands of devices. It has sent police to children’s homes in response to their use of certain self-harm-related keywords, as The Real News Network noted earlier this month. And the surveillance undoubtedly targets lower-income families, who are more likely to use school-issued computers instead of their own, personal devices.
School Police Chief Akil Hamm told the Sun that many families who were contacted due to alerts from the software were grateful to learn about their children’s mental health concerns.
“But it doesn’t alleviate our other concerns, including the potential for 4th amendment violations involving warrantless searches. If this software usage is to continue in this way, we’d much prefer to see social workers and psychologists responding to red flags, rather than armed officers,” the editorial board wrote.
Baltimore is not the only place monitoring student online activity. Other school districts in Maryland have increased monitoring during the pandemic, mostly to ensure students are doing their assignments. Schools in Rhode Island also have monitoring software, and teachers in the state can view student activity and even access the cameras, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU’s report found:
- 23 districts explicitly advise students and parents that they have no expectation of privacy when in possession of the device.
- 23 districts give school officials the authority to access the contents of a school-loaned device for any reason and with no notice.
- 24 districts allow officials to access the microphone or camera on a school-loaned device at any time.
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