The zealous monitoring of students and teachers continues

In October 2007 I wrote:

[M]any administrators dispense with students' 4th Amendment rights in the name of 'safety.' They know what the law says, but community pressures or perceived dangers outweigh Constitutional rights. Many of these administrators are in schools with no history of violence or threats. But Columbine freaked everyone out – if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere – so anything goes when it comes to student rights.

The zealous electronic monitoring of P-12 students and teachers continues. Some is legal, some is not. The use of webcams to monitor students at home without their or their parents’ knowledge is likely illegal. The use of Web monitoring and/or keylogging software to keep track of teachers’ online usage is likely legal, although it fosters a culture of employee distrust. Complicating all of this is school organizations’ obligation to ensure environments free of bullying and sexual harassment.

Too many administrators – driven by spurious media reports, parent anxiety, desires for control and order, and a natural tendency to avoid controversy and cover their asses bases – are all too willing to sacrifice educational opportunities and/or essential liberties in the name of ‘safety.’ Of course we pay a cost for this, one that isn’t discussed nearly enough.

It is unclear at what point we will say, “Enough!” Right now the end to this is nowhere in sight. I’m afraid we’re going to look back one day and ask, “What have we done to ourselves in the name of safety?

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7 Responses to “The zealous monitoring of students and teachers continues”

  1. Scott wrote:
    I’m afraid we’re going to look back one day and ask, “What have we done to ourselves in the name of safety?”

    I’m with you, Scott. I definitely wonder what kind of ideas tomorrow’s policymakers will have regarding privacy when they haven’t had any since the day they were born.

    Seriously: We design coats with GPS devices in them. We design cars that email parents anytime that kids are speeding or “out of bounds.” We design phones that serve as tracking tools. We put monitors in every room of our houses that can be checked from remote locations.

    And while on the surface, all of these “improvements” seem to make sense because we’re just trying to “keep our kids safe,” we’re really sending the message to kids that there is no such thing as individual privacy rights.

    Wouldn’t they carry that same train of thought into the positions that they hold 30 years from now?

    My grandfather would roll over in his grave if he knew that no one was standing up against practices that were erasing the personal privacy rights that he believed so strongly in—-yet my neighbors don’t think twice about logging on a dozen times a day to find out exactly where their kid is.

    Crazy indeed.

  2. There needs to be a voice of reason here. For full disclosure I work in an IT department for a school district. The reports in the media and posts in the blogosphere are distorting what to the best of my ability I have been able to determine actually happened.

    First the student was using a school owned computer. The school in order to protect its investment in the school owned computer installed software similar to Adeona from the University of Washington or LoJack for Laptops by Absolute software which helps enable the school to track down missing or stolen laptops. Software like this typically will report back the IP address of the laptop as well as take screenshots and pictures from a built-in webcam to aid in identifying who has the missing or stolen laptop.

    The district has had 42 laptops out of 2,620 go missing. This software helped recover 18 of them. At around $1000 a piece this software helped save the school and the taxpayers $18,000.

    From what I can work out. The student’s laptop was reported missing. In attempting to find the laptop that was reported missing the school district activated their asset recovery software. During the time the software was activated it captured an image of the student doing something that violated the AUP (acceptable use policy) that both the student and their parents signed. The student was reprimanded for the action that violated the AUP.

    After the student was caught violating the AUP and presented with the evidence their parents called in the lawyers to sue the school district for violating the students privacy.

    This is my opinion. Privacy in the home is of the utmost importance. I don’t and I am sure everyone else does not want anyone poking around in their private affairs. I do not like the idea that someone could be listening in on my conversations, reading my email or watching my actions.

    That said… the school has a right to install whatever software they want/need to on school owned equipment to aid in productivity, management and monitoring of that school owned equipment. The school has a right to attempt to recover lost or stolen equipment.

    The students had to sign a AUP consenting to certain behaviors when using the school owned equipment. If the student did not want to follow the guidelines that they agreed to then they should have purchased their own computer.

    As far as the “monitoring” student and faculty is concerned. The administration and IT staff do not really care what students and faculty are doing (as long as its not illegal). Really. I mean it… Really… They have far too many things on their plates already. Even if there was nothing else to do… professional development time is far more important than monitoring what students and faculty are doing. Combined with the fact it would create a atmosphere of distrust where trust and teamwork are needed the most. Can an IT department or administration actively monitor students and faculty? Sure. Do any actually do it? Not that I know of and I know IT staff and administration in several districts.

    Do IT staff like to filter internet access? No. It creates more headaches than its worth sometimes. I honestly feel only adult content and content when viewed could harm or scar a child should be blocked. YouTube, social networking, flash games… They should be a lesson in classroom management. That said we have to do it. Interestingly enough we get more requests to block access to sites than to open up access to them from teachers. I have always thought that it would be the inverse. I and most of the IT professionals that I know feel that it is a misfortune if a site that could be used in a lesson is blocked and we do our best to work with teachers to ensure that educational content is open.

    On the other hand there are laws ( that require schools to archive emails for potential litigation. There are laws that require schools internet access to be filtered ( And it makes good sense to be able to recover stolen or missing equipment that is far to hard to get funding for in the first place.

    I am sure that I will be lambasted for this comment. But I really don’t think that the school can be held accountable for their an attempt to recover a laptop that was reported as missing. On the other hand. If they were using the asset recovery software maliciously then I am sure that will come out and I hope that they are brought to justice for it. To me it does not seem to be the case though. The software was used only 42 times. If the number of uses was significantly higher it would indicate to me that there was something fishy going on. But 42 seems like a plausible number of laptops to go missing.

    Hopefully there can be a useful discussion on how to protect the assets of the school and comply with the law while safeguarding the privacy of the students and faculty. I really am interested to hear peoples solutions or policies for complying with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Children’s Internet Protection Act as well as how a school can recover missing laptops in a way that least impacts privacy.

  3. BH, thank you for your extremely thoughtful comment. I don’t think the district was wrong for installing asset recovery software. I think it’s going to be in trouble for not making it ABSOLUTELY CLEAR to parents and students that such software included the possibility of taking pictures of students in their homes. It’s unclear if that’s stated in the AUP. It’s also unclear whether the AUP is clear as written to lay people like parents and students. It’s also unclear how much the issue of contractual duress is present here. Finally, I think there may be a public policy issue here, much like the ones the courts have found when they invalidate liability waivers for field trips. It will be interesting to see what happens with this whole incident.

    I appreciate you bringing up the FRCP. I’m not sure they apply in this case but they’re worth noting…

  4. I really appreciate BH’s perspective on this since it’s obviously not as black and white as people will first perceive it to be. Even as I first perceived it to be. It is however a great case study for districts and schools to use for the future. As we move into uncharted water there will be mistakes made along the way and our hope is that we learn from it. If the software was being used maliciously by one or two individuals then those people need to be dealt with accordingly. If it was a screw up in policies and procedures then apologizes need to be made and those policies and procedures changed. Let’s hope that this incident does not derail the excellent work that the district is doing by putting technology into the hands of the students and teachers.

  5. I don’t see a problem with schools monitoring students and faculty when on campus or in public areas of student housing. By agreeing to go to a certain school you are also agreeing to their monitoring procedures.

    It is only too much to monitor students in their rooms and bathrooms because students will often be disrobed in these areas which not only brings peeping/porn laws into the picture it also offers an enormous potential for abuse. Legally speaking it is still school property, and a case can be made that the school is within it’s rights to monitor these areas as well.

    The ethics of monitoring aside, however, I have serious doubts about most schools abilities to monitor their students and employees SECURELY.

    I’m in the technology business, I make CPA websites, and my wife is a student at FSU. FSU is a major state university (GO NOLES!) and they’re way behind in technology, especially security.

  6. Kenny, I agree with most of what you say. But where you said, “By agreeing to go to a certain school you are also agreeing to their monitoring procedures,” I have an issue.

    This was a public school and most of the time students do not have a choice about where they go unless they want to attend private school. Is the family supposed to move (a costly proposition) if they don’t agree to certain policies?

  7. I agree with Blair when he says “Let’s hope that this incident does not derail the excellent work that the district is doing by putting technology into the hands of the students and teachers.” The district certainly needs to be held accountable if they have broken the law, but short of that I shudder at the loss of time and energy spent on controversies such as this. Hundreds of hours of everyone’s time and loads of lost good will. As a principal I know, these events have a “memory” that can linger unless educators in that district step up and put a good foot forward for the sake of the students.

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