Part II: Privacy and Equity Concerns

    4. What harms, such as stigma or discrimination, may stem from sharing of students’ information or flagged status?

    Using self-harm monitoring systems raises potential risks of stigma or discrimination. Biases embedded in public perception and media lead to exaggerated fears that students experiencing mental health challenges are prone to violent acts,65 even though most people with mental health needs have no propensity for violence.66 As a result of such biases, school staff may treat flagged students differently from their peers or subject them to additional scrutiny. The common but false assumption that flagged students may be violent can increase harmful stigmas toward the students who need support and can lead them, especially systematically neglected students, to experience disproportionate rates of discipline.67

    For example, in 2018, Florida passed a law68 requiring schools to collect information from students at registration about past mental health referrals, while the state’s school safety commission proposed that “students with IEPs [Individualized Education Programs] that involve severe behavioral issues” should be referred to threat assessment teams,69 which are committees created in the wake of the tragic Parkland school shooting to evaluate whether individual students pose threats of violence to the school community. Policies such as these immediately put students who struggle with mental health on a separate tier of scrutiny and potential disciplinary action due to deeply ingrained societal stigma, without leading to improved support or mental healthcare resources for the students. These policies could also have a chilling effect on disclosure. Parents are likely to worry that if their “children’s mental health history becomes part of their school records, it could be held against them.”70 These concerns could result in a loss of trust and an unwillingness to provide schools and districts with sensitive information. In some cases, parents and students may even be disincentivized from seeking mental health treatment for fear that disclosure will harm their future opportunities.

    In some cases, even when students seek help on their own, they may experience negative consequences. In one extreme example, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law represented a college student who voluntarily admitted himself to a campus hospital after a close friend died by suicide.71 When he checked in, the campus hospital shared his health information with university administrators. The next day, while still in the hospital, the student received a letter from the university charging him with a violation of the disciplinary code, allegedly for endangering himself. The student was suspended from school, barred from entering the campus (including to see his psychiatrist), and threatened with arrest if he returned to his dormitory. While his father and friends removed his belongings from his dorm room, he was forced to sit in a car with a university official.

    Students who may be considering self-harm or who are struggling with their mental health can be disincentivized from seeking help if they fear that all help sought is monitored.

    Situations like these demonstrate the potential harms of invasive or disciplinary school responses to information about a student struggling with mental health. Stigma is unfortunately real and should not be underestimated. Punitive responses contradict the goals of self-harm protection programs because they discourage students from seeking the help they need and engaging openly with mental health counselors or other healthcare providers. While monitoring companies claim their products help schools save lives, students may ultimately experience harm by not searching for resources that could help them out of a fear of being identified by school officials. Students who may be considering self-harm or who are struggling with their mental health can be disincentivized from seeking help if they fear that all help sought is monitored. Moreover, students who are identified as “at-risk” may feel like they have a target on their backs, with their personal struggles facing scrutiny in school. Students’ opportunities should not be limited, either by mental health challenges or by violations of their privacy.

    The risk of students being unfairly treated or experiencing discrimination as a result of a self-harm flag can be particularly high in schools and districts without enough school-employed mental health professionals⁠—for example, school-based counselors, school psychologists, social workers, and nurses⁠—a shortage that unfortunately afflicts most schools.72 For detailed information on the potential discriminatory harms and stigma-related effects that can arise once a student is identified, see Boxes 1 and 2.

    Even if schools do not explicitly regard students experiencing mental health challenges as threats or target them for discipline, monitoring can impact students’ natural exploration, academic freedom, or ability to find online communities and resources that are important for their well-being and mental health.
    Research has shown that school surveillance can corrode learning environments by instilling an implicit sense that children are untrustworthy.95

    Many organizations have noted that surveillance technologies such as social media monitoring and facial recognition can harm students by stifling their creativity, individual growth, and speech. The sense that “Big Brother” is always watching can destroy the feelings of safety and support that students need to take intellectual and creative risks—to do the hard work of learning and growing. In one study of Texas high school students whose district monitored their social media accounts, students reported that even if they had nothing to hide, they nonetheless found it chilling to be watched.96 A recent national survey found that 80 percent of students who were aware of their schools using monitoring software reported being more careful about what they search online because of knowing that they are being monitored.97

    Box 1: Monitoring Inflicts Particular Harms on Systemically Marginalized Groups of Students

    Beyond understanding the risk of criminalization and potential for referral to law enforcement, school districts should carefully consider the uniquely harmful impacts of monitoring on various systemically marginalized groups of students. Below are some examples of groups of students that may experience unique harms as a result of self-harm monitoring.


    5. Who has access to the information identified or flagged, and do they have a legitimate health or educational purpose for accessing it?

    Because of the harms that can stem from sharing student information, a key privacy issue involves who can access information about which students have been flagged and the content collected by a self-harm monitoring system. Schools should carefully consider which school staff receive information collected through monitoring technologies and what training and communication is being provided to this staff and limit this access to only those who need it to provide specific mental health-related follow-up and support to the students. Schools must also determine if the information may be lawfully disclosed to these individuals.

    Coordination among teachers, parents, administrators, and school-employed mental health professionals regarding identified students could help adults spot warning signs and establish comprehensive support plans for the students. Providing increased attention to students’ mental health from qualified individuals may result in better resources and increased care.

    However, simply having information about students’ mental health status, without the skills or capacity to provide specific follow-up or support, could damage teachers’ perceptions of students or negatively affect how the wider school community treats such students. This may be especially true when teachers or school staff receiving this information do not have the training, qualifications, or responsibility for providing mental health-related support to students. Peer-reviewed research demonstrates that teachers do frequently inaccurately identify students as experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.98 As a result, students may experience the sharing of this information as an invasion of their privacy, resulting in feelings of stigmatization and mistrust.

    Simply having information about students’ mental health status, without the skills or capacity to provide specific follow-up or support, could damage teachers’ perceptions of students or negatively affect how the wider school community treats such students.

    In addition to considering whether school staff are appropriately equipped to provide mental health-related support to students, schools and districts should ensure that any staff with access to the information identified or flagged are trained on the district’s internal protocol for appropriately handling student information collected through monitoring. Staff must be trained to understand the sensitivity of the information being collected on students, understand appropriate disclosure and use limitations, and be familiar with how and when to appropriately escalate any concerns. They should also be trained on the myriad privacy and equity concerns that arise when students’ online activities are monitored surreptitiously. Finally, staff who may have access to student information collected through monitoring or who may be responsible for following-up with identified students must be trained on the district’s broader mental health policies, including the school’s self-harm prevention and suicide intervention protocols.99

    Schools should also consider the potential risks and harms that can result from sharing information collected from monitoring with students’ parents. For example, some monitoring software flags terms related to sexual orientation or gender identity (such as “gay” and “lesbian”) as terms that signify potential bullying.100 If a student is searching for identity-affirming materials and their searches are flagged, what consequences might the student experience if the school shared that information with their parents, to whom the child may not have disclosed these identities? Children in these situations may face serious dangers to their safety and well-being if their home environments are not supportive. More information about this type of harm is presented in Box 1.

    Schools and districts should incorporate processes to appropriately ensure that these types of considerations are factored into how, if at all, parents are notified of flags containing sensitive information and what information collected from monitoring is shared with them. These considerations should fall within a broader approach of similar caution that schools must exercise when sharing flagged information with anyone because of the potential negative effects it may have on the identified student. Significant risks arise any time sensitive student information collected through monitoring is shared with any individual who does not directly need access to the information in order to provide mental health-related support.

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