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Digital monitoring of students finds cries for help, threats

August 6, 2018

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — School officials in Omaha, Kearney, Schuyler and other communities have been using digital monitoring and surveillance of students’ online communications as they try to stop the next school shooter or the next student suicide.

Education technology companies such as Securly, Gaggle and Social Sentinel offer products that scan students’ online communications and flag threats, drug references or signs of potential self-harm. The scans are mostly limited to school emails or activity on school computers or internet networks, not private accounts.

At the Millard school district in Omaha, the email alerts are routed to the school administrators. The alerts begin with the message: “I am alerting you to an item with questionable content.” One recent alert concerned a distressed student who had emailed a friend saying, “I hate myself.” Another included a scan of a file of a different student’s communications that turned up a reference to self-harm.

“I get these almost daily,” said Bill Jelkin, Millard’s student services director.

Schuyler schools signed up for scans from Gaggle on a trial basis two years ago.

“After a quarter, our principals said, ‘Oh, my gosh, we didn’t know how much was going on out here,’ ” Schuyler Superintendent Dan Hoesing told the Omaha World-Herald . “They were surprised at what was found. It was invisible.”

The steps to scan the students’ communications have drawn cheers from parents and principals who fear they can’t keep up with tech-savvy teenagers and children.

But the scans also raise concerns about overreach from advocates for student privacy.

“I don’t want to sound insensitive to the gun violence and student safety concerns. Those are definitely real and important. It’s just that surveillance policies are also rolled out for something like that as sort of a knee-jerk reaction,” said Christine Bannan, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Hoesing noted that the information being scanned belonged to the school.

“It’s not like we’re playing Big Brother,” Hoesing said. “If you’re using our network, you know anything that comes across that network is our property.”

Officials in some districts said they’re not using monitoring products, but rather focusing on prevention by fostering positive school climates where students can confide in school staff.

Katie Burton, a parent with three kids in Millard schools, said the district’s use of a monitoring service seems “fairly benign.” But she said she worries that students could be punished for something they wrote before doing anything wrong.

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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