Borrowed a School Laptop? Mind Your Open Tabs

The report found that Black and Hispanic families were more reliant on school devices than…

The report found that Black and Hispanic families were more reliant on school devices than their white counterparts and were more likely to voice concern about the potential disciplinary consequences of the monitoring software.

The group said monitoring software, from companies like Securly and GoGuardian, offers a range of capabilities, from blocking access to adult content and flagging certain keywords (slurs, profanity, terms associated with self-harm, violence, etc.) to allowing teachers to see students screens in real time and make changes.

Clarice Brazas, a teacher in Philadelphia’s public schools, is alarmed by the ability to remotely monitor screens. The district issued Chromebooks to qualifying students, but she worried about the disciplinary consequences of monitoring software in a district where a majority of students are nonwhite and low-income.

“I don’t know that it’s my job as an educator to police what content students are looking at when they’re at home,” she says. “I consider that the family’s job.”

In speaking with other teachers about GoGuardian, the monitoring software used in Philadelphia, she found there was not a consistent approach to policing students’ online activity. The lack of oversight, she says, has led to a case-by-case approach to disciplining students, which could unfairly harm students of color.

“We haven’t really been given any standards as educators, like what is our duty of reporting? Is that the same as if it was happening in our classroom?” she says. A September investigation from the Center for Public Integrity and USA Today found that while half of the students in Philadelphia are Black, they make up nearly nearly three-quarters of students referred to police for school-related incidents. A representative for the school district didn’t return a request for comment.

“We know that when kids face any sort of disciplinary action and they’re Black or brown, they’re more likely to have escalated discipline because of that,” Brazas says.

Brazas and Laird both referenced the “school-to-prison pipeline,” where students of color are disciplined more harshly in school than white students for the same offenses, exposing them to law enforcement, the juvenile justice system, and ultimately, the adult prison system.

Even some parents of students who own their own devices found the deluge of school-issued software overwhelming.

Cassie Creswell, a parent with children in the Chicago public schools, kept a list of each piece of software that her daughter, a high school sophomore, was asked to download. Within two months, there were 15.

“Every couple of days, it was like, ‘Oh, install this. Make an account on this,’” Creswell says. “We never got any notification or consent whatsoever for any of these things.”

The Chicago schools issued over 50,000 devices to students as part of its shift to remote learning. GoGuardian was only preinstalled on the Chromebooks that it lent to students. For a time, a security flaw allowed teachers to initiate virtual classrooms at will, automatically triggering the webcams of district-owned Chromebooks without students having to accept an invitation. CPS and GoGuardian removed this feature after parents protested.

“We care deeply about keeping students safe and protecting their privacy,” a GoGuardian spokesman wrote in a statement. “We also recognize the important role that school leaders play in balancing student privacy and safety in the digital age and are committed to thoughtfully partnering with our customers to support that balance.”

Laird, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, says the harms from the monitoring software aren’t limited to students getting in trouble for what they see, type, or search for. It also includes what they won’t see or search for because of the knowledge that they’re being watched.

“We found that six in 10 students agreed with the statement ‘I do not share my true thoughts or ideas because I know what I do online is being monitored,’” she says.

“When you think about this happening in an educational environment where you want students to express themselves, you want students to be learning, you want students to feel free to make mistakes, that response raises questions about whether this will actually undermine the whole purpose of education.”

Updated, 10-7-21, 12:20pm ET: This article has been updated with a comment from Securly.

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