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More Texas schools are investing in online student surveillance. But does it work?

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Posted at 8:20 AM, Jun 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-30 09:20:14-04

Last fall, faculty at the Seguin Independent School District received an email no school district wants to read: A student was having suicidal thoughts and the district had to intervene.

The student was approached by the district’s crisis team that is made up of several faculty members. Their parents were notified and given resources to help the student.

It was a crisis averted.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, a district located about 36 miles east from San Antonio, said this wouldn’t have been possible without a monitoring software called Gaggle. The district uses this software to keep an eye on student behavior, sending alerts if it detects that a student poses a threat to himself or others.

In this case, the Seguin-area student was writing about committing suicide in a Google Doc while logged in to his student email account. Employees at Gaggle saw what the student was writing and flagged the school.

“The purpose of it is to be proactive and hopefully to prevent something tragic from happening, whether it’s a suicide or potentially something similar to what happened in Uvalde,” Gutierrez said.

Texas school districts lead the country in purchasing contracts with digital surveillance companies. More than 200 of the state’s 1,200 districts statewide use some sort of monitoring software with the most popular being Social Sentinel and Gaggle.

Social Sentinel tracks social media sites used by students, looking for key words such as “shoot” or “kill” in relation to the school district. Gaggle monitors only a student’s school-issued laptop and anything associated with a child’s school email account.

But there is debate whether surveillance software does more harm than good. Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote that these surveillance softwares won’t stop the next mass shooting.

“There is simply no proof that widespread social media monitoring reliably works to avert threats,” Levinson-Waldman wrote.

Research conducted by the Center for Democracy and Technology suggests that these monitoring tools are “unduly intrusive” and have the potential to suppress creative speech if students feel reluctant to speak out and think behavior surveillance is the norm.

Since the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, there has been more focus on how to improve school safety.

In the months leading up to the shooting, Uvalde’s 18-year-old gunman posted pictures of his guns on his Instagram account. He also posted a cryptic note on Instagram on May 14: “10 more days.” Texas officials have said the gunman was in an Instagram group chat talking about purchasing his guns, prompting at least one person in the group to ask if he was going to be a school shooter.

“Ideally, we’d have been able to identify this guy as a suspect and address it before he even thought about attacking on the 24th,” Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a May 27 press conference.

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District had purchased a contract with Social Sentinel. The school district, as many others across Texas and the country, uses the software to “monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district.”

But that didn’t stop the gunman.

That’s because Social Sentinel flags only public social media posts, said Jean-Paul Guilbault, the CEO of Navigate360, the company behind Social Sentinel. The Uvalde gunman was sending messages in private chats.

Gutierrez said that is one of the pitfalls of monitoring software. While it can provide alerts on any public threats or those tied to school-issued email accounts, there’s no way to peer into private chats inside social media platforms.

“We have to rely on just our students and staff being extra vigilant and reporting potential harm,” he said.

Seguin ISD spends about $21,000 a year on Gaggle. For the most part, schools use monitoring software as part of their safety plans. When a threat is detected, schools look for the best way to help students, either sending them to a school counselor or directing them to an outside expert.

Chelsea Barabas, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been studying security systems in Texas schools, found that in the last decade, there has been an increase in annual surveillance spending per student — from about $68 per student to $113 per student. In that same time period, school spending on social services increased from $25 per student per year to just $32.

Barabas said she believes that spending on surveillance will increase after the shooting in Uvalde, especially after calls for more security and safety in schools.

“Parents specifically, they want to see that school districts are making an effort to keep their kids safe,” Barabas said.

Andrew Fernandez, the chief of communications and technology at San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District, said the online surveillance software used by that district has stopped students causing harm to one another.

“It was prevented,” Fernandez said. “What the magnitude of [the threat was]? We don’t know but the fact that we don’t know is a good thing.”

How schools use this technology

Seguin ISD is one of 105 Texas school districts that use Gaggle and, according to Gutierrez, it’s been a critical tool as lower coronavirus infection rates allow schools to reopen their in-person classrooms.

But the return has not been without problems, and Gutierrez said Gaggle has been instrumental in spotting changes in student behavior over the pandemic.

“I feel like we’re experiencing a mental health crisis,” he said. “We were experiencing that before COVID, but I think it has certainly compounded.”

Not everyone is a fan of these programs. Odis Johnson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said these software systems have the tendency to make students feel like suspects, which creates a bad learning environment. His research also suggests that heightened levels of surveillance at schools hurt students’ academic progress as the surveillance for school shooter or self-harm turns into disciplinary action for other lesser other nonrelated actions.

Barabas said there is evidence that shows students of color are more likely to be disciplined for minor offenses because of these surveillance systems, something that she is currently tracking in her research as well.

Johnson said he’s not advocating for schools to get rid of their software or lessen security at schools, but school administrators need to be aware of these side effects. In his studies, he’s also found that there isn’t enough data to suggest surveillance software actually stops school shootings.

“I like that idea of the right balance,” Johnson said. “We have to know what their unintended consequences are. We just can’t move forward trying to fortify schools to stop one of the shootings without paying attention to all the other ways in which it changes schools as a social system.”

Multifaceted approach

Guilbault, Navigate360’s CEO, said while his company provides a unique product to school districts, it’s important to remember that it is not the cure-all for school safety. It’s just one part of it.

“We’re really in the business of enhancing the school climate and culture and ensuring that every life is protected in the school and helping schools,” he said.

Part of this multifaceted plan includes safety drills, better physical security for schools and encouraging both students and teachers to report threats when they see them. The San Marcos school district has hired at least five counselors to help struggling students.

“It’s really just providing an abundance of support and resources for families within and outside of San Marcos,” Fernandez said. “These online platforms really allow us to be proactive. It’s just an extra safety shield we have in our back pocket.”

In Seguin, the school district has added 12 new counseling positions over the last five years, bringing their number of counselors to 36.

“We’re obviously focusing on academics, but we’re also putting a lot of focus and emphasis in supporting the mental well-being of students,” Gutierrez said.

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"More Texas schools are investing in online student surveillance. But does it work?" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/30/texas-school-safety-surveillance/.

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