Part II: Privacy and Equity Concerns

    6. How is student information shared with third parties, if at all, and are such disclosures permitted by law?

    Another key privacy consideration is whether and how schools share student information collected from monitoring programs, including individual students’ flagged status, with third parties, such as law enforcement entities, hospitals, or social services providers.

    School districts may be inclined to share a student’s flagged status or mental health information with law enforcement because of biases and misconceptions that conflate mental health problems with violence, or even because of a lack of school-based mental health resources or expertise.101 This conflation of mental health disorders with violence may even be directly promoted by monitoring companies themselves; for example, Gaggle’s homepage prominently states that “70% of students who plotted school attacks showed signs of mental health issues.”102

    Sharing student information collected through self-harm monitoring with law enforcement is a particular risk when schools monitor students’ online activity outside of school hours and school administrators are unavailable to respond to after-hours flags. Although sharing the information collected through monitoring software in this manner may stem from good intentions, underlying social inequities cause certain student groups to likely suffer particular harm when schools share their information with third parties or unduly refer them to law enforcement. Monitoring technology itself may not cause the systemic biases that lead particular student groups to experience harm when they are referred to law enforcement. However, school districts must recognize that having a monitoring provider generate law enforcement referrals for self-harm flags can criminalize normal adolescent behavior and subject students to these systemic biases.103 School officials and education leaders must exercise utmost caution to not exacerbate existing systemic injustices for their students through their choice of monitoring provider⁠—undermining the original goal of improving student well-being rather than endanger it.

    While harms may also occur from sharing student information with other third parties such as contracted mental health personnel or local psychiatric facilities,104 law enforcement is often the most common third party presence on school campuses, and existing societal inequities make sharing of student information with law enforcement particularly risky for many student groups (see Box 2 discussing vulnerable students and law enforcement).

    Box 2: Intersections with Mental Health: Vulnerable students are likely to face disproportionate criminalization and harm from referral to law enforcement

    In many cases, law enforcement officers, including school resource officers (SROs), are more common resources than counselors or school psychologists on school campuses. In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union found that almost two million students attend schools with police officers but no counselors, three million attend schools with police officers but no school nurses, six million are in schools with police officers but no school psychologists, and ten million are in schools with police officers but no school social workers.105 In such contexts, schools may be more likely to frame and treat mental health needs as threats or disciplinary issues for law enforcement to handle, simply because they may lack access to school employed mental health professionals.

    For example, in some states, police officers, including SROs, are statutorily authorized to submit students to involuntary psychiatric examinations.106 A study by civil rights groups in Florida found that schools routinely refer “school children who make jokes, act out, exhibit normal manifestations of a known disability, or express ordinary sadness” for police-initiated psychiatric confinement, rather than connecting them to long-term, community-based care.107 This practice takes children away from their families without their consent, confines them in a psychiatric facility alone, and may lead to “devastating results, including trauma and abuse, for these children, as young as 6.”108 Florida is unfortunately not unique in over-involving law enforcement in issues related to student mental health to the detriment of students.109

    In addition to creating stigma, this approach of framing potential mental health needs as a disciplinary problem to be handled by law enforcement often prevents students from receiving necessary medical treatment and unnecessarily entangles them in the criminal justice system. Needlessly referring students who may benefit from mental health services to law enforcement instead furthers existing inequities and perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline. This means student groups who are already marginalized and vulnerable are the ones most likely to be flagged by monitoring systems, seen as at-risk or dangerous by school staff, disproportionately referred to law enforcement, and most likely to be harmed by this referral. Students who are minoritized or marginalized in terms of race/ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or socioeconomic status are known to be disproportionately criminalized in this way and, in turn, are most likely to suffer additional harm if monitoring technologies lead to contact with law enforcement rather than mental health support.110 As discussed above, students who are English Language Learners or immigrants may be more likely to be mistakenly flagged by monitoring systems due to mistranslations or lack of cultural context. When this occurs, their safety or residency may be endangered through law enforcement contact.

    Consider the following statistics:

    • Black students and other students of color are especially harmed by disciplinary actions and law enforcement interactions:
      • Black students are suspended and expelled from school at three times the rate of their white peers.111
      • Approximately one-third of all students arrested at school are Black, despite only comprising 16 percent of the nation’s student population.112
      • Black children are more than 5 times more likely to be detained or incarcerated than white children.113
      • Native American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students are arrested in school at 2 times the rate of white students.114
      • Black and Latino boys with disabilities comprise 3 percent of all students but 12 percent of all school arrests.115
      • Native American girls are arrested in school 3.5 times more than white girls.116
    • Harsh exclusionary discipline, criminalization, and law enforcement interactions already disproportionately harm students with disabilities, as schools often mistakenly view them as threats.
      • Children with learning and behavioral disabilities are arrested nearly three times more often than other students.117
      • Children with disabilities comprise up to 85 percent of youth in juvenile detention centers,118 while only 37 percent of them receive educational accommodations and services for their disability in school.119
      • Students with disabilities are suspended from school approximately twice as often as students without disabilities.120
      • A quarter of all children arrested at school are children with disabilities.121

    LGBTQ students are already disproportionately criminalized and at risk of negative law enforcement interactions; referrals from monitoring programs to SROs and other law enforcement could increase this existing harm. LGBTQ students flagged through monitoring may face more likely referral to law enforcement, compared to non-LGBTQ students. Researchers have estimated 20 percent of youth involved in the juvenile justice system are LGBTQ, compared to 4–6 percent of youth in the general population.122

    7. Does the school district have a plan for providing transparent communication with parents and students, and how have they ensured that the communication plan meets the needs of their community?

    Transparency is an essential part of any data initiative. If families and students are unaware of the self-harm monitoring program, schools risk losing their communities’ trust and undermining the goals of their initiative. For example, if a student is flagged when their “mental health problems workbook” includes the word “suicidal,” it may feel like a violation of the confidential relationship between that student and the counselor or therapist who assigned them that workbook.123

    If school districts choose to adopt monitoring technology, they must do so transparently, in consultation with experts and community stakeholders, and focus on narrow and straightforward indicators of imminent self-harm. Schools should clearly inform families and students how their online activities are monitored and ensure they know the potential in-school or out-of-school consequences of being flagged. Some monitoring companies have proactively enabled by-default transparency measures—for example, an icon that shows up near the top of a student’s browser when they are being monitored—that can assist schools in providing this transparency.124

    Schools and districts considering implementing a self-harm monitoring program should ensure families, students, and appropriate school staff understand how the technology works, the internal processes in place to respond to flagged material, which school staff have access to the information collected, and any opportunities students and parents may have for redress in the event of mistaken flags or harmful impacts of being flagged. In particular, when a student is flagged, they and their families deserve access to the information used to make that decision, as well as an opportunity to dispute it. Such proactive communication and transparency will allow students to make more informed decisions about how they use school devices in light of their school’s monitoring policies and will allow students and their parents greater agency in mitigating risks and harms related to being flagged. In fact, some state legislatures have recognized the importance of community engagement around monitoring systems. In California, there is a legal requirement that school districts notify parents and hold a hearing before they can engage in a program to monitor student social media, even if student profiles are public.125

    School leaders and administrators should consider students and their families as equal partners in selecting, vetting, and developing a self-harm monitoring program prior to implementation.

    Finally, before implementing a self-harm monitoring program, schools and districts should ensure that their community has had a meaningful opportunity to provide input, raise concerns, and share their perspectives on the program. School leaders and administrators should consider students and their families as equal partners in selecting, vetting, and developing a self-harm monitoring program prior to implementation.

    Box 3: Spotlight on COVID-19: Additional Considerations and Barriers to Effectiveness During Remote Learning

    Context increasingly matters, as the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shift to remote learning have placed both physical and emotional distance between students, educators, and other school staff. Many schools have turned to self-harm and suicide monitoring technologies in an attempt to fill any potential rifts created by remote learning126 and in response to growing concern about the impact of the pandemic on student mental health.127 For example, the number of users of the provider GoGuardian (across all its monitoring services, not just its self-harm monitoring product) has rapidly expanded by 60 percent during the pandemic128 and it is now used by 23 of the 25 largest school districts in the country.129 Some reports have suggested that this expanded monitoring is necessary, as educators may have felt better equipped to understand when a student required mental health assistance and intervene by using in-person cues, such as a student’s demeanor and appearance, and may struggle to understand when their students may need help as they learn remotely.130

    In reality, it is difficult to trace how precisely the pandemic has impacted student mental health.131 Some students’ mental health may have declined during the pandemic due to combined factors such as the pressures of isolation, the stress and challenges of trying to learn without direct access to teachers in person, anxiety about the pandemic generally, technology problems, COVID-related loss and illness in the family, and unstable home environments.132 However, these increased mental health-related concerns must be balanced with protecting student privacy.

    Some well-meaning school administrators may consider these increased pandemic-related stressors as all the more reason to instate self-harm monitoring technology, regardless of whether teachers were previously able to pick up on in-person signs of mental health crisis accurately. However, it is important for school administrators to remember that self-harm monitoring technology is not evidence-based, and its implementation in the absence of privacy-protective practices and thoughtful implementation policies can in fact harm students, regardless of any greater mental health needs during the pandemic. School administrators should remember that these technologies should only be deployed as part of a multi-pronged program of well-developed mental health supports.

    For more information on supporting student mental health during the pandemic, see our recent blog on the topic.


    In addition to understanding the privacy and equity risks, school and district leaders should also be aware of the many practical challenges involved in implementing self-harm monitoring. As discussed above, the efficacy of monitoring technologies for reducing self-harm has not been fully evaluated and the technologies have not been substantiated by mental health professionals or clinicians as an effective tool for addressing mental health crises. Beyond questions about the initial accuracy of identifying students in need of support, there are practical challenges to this identification actually leading to the students receiving support, including the widespread lack of qualified mental health personnel in schools. Flagging at-risk students can only be useful if effective follow-up plans and mental health resources are in place for the identified students.

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