By Al Kingsley, originally published in Equity & Access
There’s a stark difference in how schools in the United States and the United Kingdom handle student safety and privacy. And while I’m not an attorney and my advice certainly cannot be construed as legal guidance, I not only run an edtech company with a significant presence in the U.S. and U.K., but I am also a school governor in the U.K. I’m one of those people who is responsible for making sure British students are protected when using school devices. The U.S. and UK have very different opinions and regulations about how this is done.
In the UK, the schools have a “duty of care” for each student, that includes being held liable for any student who harms him or herself or another person. U.S. schools, on the other hand, act in loco parentis for students during the school day. Schools and individuals are not legally responsible for a student’s actions outside of school unless they have prior awareness of the danger.
In addition, while both sets of schools are governed by their country’s education rules, a hodgepodge of state and local rules govern districts in the U.S., meaning schools here have considerably more leeway in terms of what actual programs and protocols they use. The U.S. is quite literally the Wild West when it comes to safety and privacy in education.
The biggest difference between the two countries when it comes to student safety is a philosophical one. What is a safe, equitable way to monitor students? UK schools keep track of their students’ behaviors online in a variety of ways, such as keyword monitoring as well as monitoring students’ web and app usage. U.S. schools can employ the same techniques, but have to balance those actions against the country’s general wariness about protecting student privacy. Overall, the UK’s data protection act is stricter than any law in the U.S. because it controls how personal information is managed by organizations, businesses, or the government.
This difference between both countries was brought into stark relief just last year when the White House released a nonbinding white paper that covered, among other things, “continuous surveillance” of students. The paper discouraged policies where technology could impinge upon students’ right to privacy, as well as those that could perpetuate inequity – two rights that we all agree should be protected.
My argument however, is that these systems don’t have to be an either/or choice. Schools in the U.S. should effectively use technology to monitor students, as long as they follow a few critical tenets. Statements from U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona late last year indicate that he agrees.
At the time, Cardona called for technology tools used by schools to monitor students to be free of biases while clearly telling parents exactly what is being monitored. His department expects to release even more specific recommendations later this year. These recommendations, as outlined in a White House fact sheet, will “introduce guidelines and guardrails that build upon existing education data privacy regulations as well as introduce new policies to support schools in protecting students when using AI.”
I think it is important to take a fresh look at factors in support of student monitoring before delineating non-negotiable rules that hamstring it to such a degree that it cannot be effective.
Schools in the U.S. do use software to keep track of student behavior online. In the U.K. all schools use such software. The monitoring includes a variety of things from websites visited to search keywords. Knowing this information and allowing software to recognize threats and alert school officials allows schools to for example, head off potential or realized bullying incidents, which is far more prevalent than most of us realize. Nearly half of children aged 13 to 17 have experienced cyberbullying, according to a 2022 survey by Pew Research Center.
Recently, there have been increases in hate speech directed toward minority groups, religious affiliations, and students who identify as LBGTQIA. The U.S. Department of Justice has created a toolkit specifically to help schools prevent and respond to these incidents.
Such activities do not have to be done using a broad brush, however. While some software will simply flag troublesome words or phrases, other programs can contextualize this content by showing screenshots of how the phrases are being used. An even more advanced tool can use “contextual intelligence” to analyze these risks and grade them by their urgency in an alert to a school official. The contextual intelligence used to guide the technology is supervised, monitored, and adapted as needed by qualified district staff who are specifically trained on guidelines for student safety and privacy protocols.
Having this information not only is important to helping individuals but it gives school administrators a broad view and the ability to determine if programs to counter such threats – like professional development and public information campaigns – are effective. They can spot and monitor trends both positive and those that can be troublesome or even dangerous.
Now, let’s consider what key elements should be part of every school’s security plan for its students. The first is transparency. Students, teachers, administrators, and especially parents, should easily understand how students are being monitored, what data is being collected, and how it is being used.
Schools should go beyond this to ensure that students or guardians have a right to file a complaint if they think any monitoring takes away the student’s right to privacy. Clearly spelling out the rules assures parents and avoids misunderstandings. These same plans should detail what a school is not monitoring and which information about students will not be kept.
Of equal importance is the school’s obligation to teach students how to be responsible digital citizens. This covers everything from how to keep their personal data safe online to how to behave properly with peers and adults. Students are also taught how to validate the authenticity of material they read online and what steps they should follow before sharing a post or a story. The same tools that are used to monitor students can be used to teach students about how data about them is collected and used. For example, your school’s policies may have a different set of rules if a student is using a district-issued laptop on campus, or a private smartphone at lunch. Students likely aren’t aware of these differences and because there are many permutations, it’s incumbent upon the school to be clear.
Al Kingsley is an author, podcaster, chair of the Multi Academy Trust cluster of schools in the UK, Apprenticeship Ambassador and chair of his regional Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Board. He is also a 30-year veteran of the edtech industry as CEO of NetSupport. He writes about servant leadership models that school leaders can engage in their schools, including in his most recent book, “My School Governance Handbook,” and upcoming book, “My School & Multi Academy Trust #Growth Guide.”
The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.