Protect student privacy at school

This article originally appeared on the Star Tribune website on March 10, 2022. You can find the original here.


By Sandra Feist


The tech surveillance in place has biases that only deepen existing opportunity gaps.

An investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that policies monitoring online student behavior were clearly resulting in unnecessary expulsion of minority students.


Technology advances faster than our ability to regulate it. This has proved especially true in our schools, where surveillance technology has become ubiquitous, based on unproven benefits promised by private, for-profit companies that sell it.

New software tools use artificial intelligence and a team of moderators to scan billions of student e-mails, chat messages and files each year. Schools have also increasingly relied on remote exam proctoring technology that analyzes student behavior during exams to detect cheating.

As is always inevitable, the pain caused by this unregulated technology usage falls primarily on the backs of already marginalized students of color, neurodivergent students, low-income students and students struggling with mental health.

The phrase "school-to-prison pipeline" describes how schools funnel students — predominantly those who have histories of poverty, abuse, neglect and learning disabilities — into the juvenile and criminal justice systems through excessively stringent policies. Studies by organizations such as the Brennan Center for Justice have found that surveillance systems such as those increasingly used in our public schools will exacerbate existing disparities.

As one teacher interviewed by the Brennan Center stated: "When schools introduce these technologies, they open the door to labeling students' normal thoughts, words and movements as dangerous — and potentially involving law enforcement. As a former teacher in a 99% Black, low-income neighborhood, I am terrified for my former students whose natural speech patterns or movements were often wrongfully perceived as problematic by those unfamiliar with the community."

An investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that policies monitoring online student behavior were clearly resulting in unnecessary expulsion of minority students. One report assessed the problem with algorithm-based surveillance software designed by people who "implicitly associate African Americans with aggression, criminality, violence and danger," finding that the use of intense surveillance methods harms students' interests, delegitimizes the educational process, perpetuates racial inequalities, weakens trust in government institutions and processes, and skews minorities' perceptions of their standing in our society.

Students of color already are disciplined at significantly higher rates than peers, which has lifelong consequences and plays into the school-to-prison pipeline and Minnesota's appalling opportunity gap.

Furthermore, studies into the efficacy of student surveillance tools have demonstrated that they break down trust relationships with schools. Experts, such as those at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, have expressed concern that such tools will ultimately discourage adolescents from reaching out for help — in particular Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ communities, who are far more likely to seek help online.

I am a lead author for the student data privacy act (HF 341) in the Minnesota House. This bill was first introduced many years ago, when this issue was emerging, in an attempt to get ahead of the technology to create guardrails for Minnesota's students. Over the years, this issue has fallen to the background amid many pressing priorities. This year, as the pandemic has exponentially increased reliance on school-issued devices, the question of student data privacy rights has emerged to generate bipartisan support.


I urge you to reach out to your state legislators to support HF 341. It would increase protections for students from disproportionate disciplinary actions stemming from implicit biases embedded in the technology. These tools used ostensibly to benefit students only exacerbate the already unacceptable educational disparities in our state. We can and must do better.

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