Clear Backpacks, Monitored Emails: Life For US Students Under Constant Surveillance

In La Crosse, Wisconsin, Ingrid, a 15-year-old high school student, is accustomed to being monitored on surveillance cameras throughout her school. To prevent the possibility of students hiding weapons within their backpacks, the school mandates that all school supplies must be stored in clear backpacks, while water bottles must also be clear, allowing teachers and officials to determine the liquid’s color. The school tracks students’ activities on their laptops and warns them to stay away from inappropriate sites or face disciplinary action.

According to Ingrid, the surveillance tactics are not over-the-top, and her classmates are mostly accepting of them. When it comes to digital monitoring, Ingrid believes that everyone has become used to it; it only becomes an issue when someone faces consequences for inappropriate behavior. Ingrid doesn’t feel her privacy is being violated because it’s a school device and not her personal cellphone.

The rise in school shootings across America has led to a thriving school security industry. After the Parkland, Florida school shooting incident that led to 17 deaths, schools became more interested in technology that would keep an eye on students’ online activities for signs of violence or self-harm. Tech companies now offer a wide range of tools for schools to track their students’ online activities, including tracking the websites they visit, the searches they make, and even what they post on their public social media accounts.

It’s estimated that as many as a third of America’s roughly 15,000 school districts may already be using technology that monitors students’ emails and documents. In some cases, they track for phrases that suggest suicidal thoughts, plans for a school shooting, or other offenses. However, some students and parents are concerned about the impact of such surveillance on students’ privacy and mental health.

The Guardian reached out to parents, students, and educators across America to gather opinions on the adoption of new digital surveillance technology in public schools. Some parents were fearful of these new monitoring technologies, while others were conflicted, noting that there might be benefits to schools keeping an eye on student online activities, but uncertain if their schools were resolving privacy concerns. Many had no idea what type of surveillance technology their schools were using, and the consent forms their children were issuing provided no clarity on the subject.

Jarrett Dapier, a parent of a middle school student and a young adult librarian in Skokie, Illinois, is worried that students may become immune to the pervasive surveillance as they become accustomed to it. "It sort of trains the next generation that [surveillance] is normal, that it’s not an issue. What is the next generation’s Mark Zuckerberg going to think is normal? It’s the school as panopticon, and the sweeping searchlight beams into homes, now, and to me, that’s just disastrous to intellectual risk-taking and creativity."

Sara, a 16-year-old private school student from New York City, suggests that there should be limits on what schools can do in the name of protecting student safety.

According to Sara, defining the digital equivalent of a student’s diary is a complex matter. She believes that if a student has a private or public Instagram account, their school should not be monitoring their activity on social media. Unfortunately, some American schools have overstepped the line. In 2018, at least 60 school districts spent over $1 million on monitoring technology to track what their students were saying on public social media accounts. The Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive advocacy group, analyzed school contracts and discovered a sharp increase in spending following the 2018 Parkland school shooting.

Farid Chaouki, a New Jersey app developer, has two daughters who are continually signed up for new digital programs at their public school, including school Google accounts and virtual learning platforms. Parents are given minimal information about how their children’s data is being used, or the business models of the companies running the platforms. Each time his children complete school work through a digital platform, they generate a vast amount of highly personal and potentially significant data. The platforms gather data about the time his kids do their homework and their mistakes on math problems.

As an app developer, Chaouki is aware of how much data digital platforms collect and how freely they sell it to other companies. He worries that anything his kids are doing online will be used against them later in life. It is likely that the data generated by the accounts his kids used at school will affect their job prospects and insurance premiums.

Some students, like Ingrid, a 15-year old from La Crosse, Wisconsin, are less concerned. Ingrid is careful to use her personal device when searching for sensitive material as she believes teachers will let her parents know what she’s doing on her school computer. Even when using her own device, she is wary of school wifi as she is unsure if it enables the school to track her activities. This concern is not a significant issue for Ingrid as most of her classmates have their personal devices. Ingrid fears technology will become more invasive in the future.

Other students claim that school surveillance has already chilled them. Felix, a student in northern California, got in trouble when he was ten for having files on his computer about school shootings and guns. Felix’s father explained that he raised his son to be curious and opinionated and had been researching the issues. Felix is now 12 and recently heard of another student who got into trouble for writing something negative about another student on a school account. Felix is frustrated by the school’s lack of education and clarity regarding what is and is not acceptable. Once children get into trouble, schools assume they knew the rules, Felix claimed.

The lack of clarity in school surveillance has driven some parents to forgo research entirely, unable to discern which platforms the school is constantly monitoring. Felix, a concerned parent, seeks transparency from the school and wants to ensure that parents have control over surveillance. Ben, a tech professional from Maryland, once received an urgent call from his son’s school principal, alerting him that his 9 or 10-year-old son had typed "I want to kill myself" into a Google document. As it turned out, the boy had only been testing the boundaries and found the incident to be resolved easily since the family had a good relationship with school administrators. Although there are anecdotes about hundreds of lives saved through flagging students’ online searches or private emails about self-harm, no independent evaluation has confirmed whether or not this surveillance technology significantly reduces violence and suicide. While Ben is open to a “middle ground” that teaches his kids to conduct all of their “private business” on “self-owned computers and networks”, the issue is not whether or not surveillance should be used but rather the level of transparency and information given to parents about what kind of monitoring schools are doing and how it’s being conducted. Vanessa Cumming, a parent in Florida, believes that there’s insufficient proof that school surveillance technology works effectively to help students and perceives the risk of intensified monitoring on certain groups of students, including Muslim and black students. Parents have begun to raise concerns over school data collection, and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy was founded in 2014 to oppose the creation of a standardized national database that recorded multiple data points about public school students and shared the data with education technology companies. The effort failed in 2014 due to opposition from parents and privacy activists. Currently, this coalition comprises over 4,000 individuals on its mailing list, and approximately 100 active core members. However, Leonie Haimson, one of the co-founders of the group, is aware of the challenge posed by the power and political influence behind education technology companies.

However, certain privacy specialists and scholars have expressed their apprehension regarding the use of surveillance in schools as it could potentially harm the students’ overall well-being. Sara, a 16-year-old student from a private school in New York City, acknowledged this concern and asserted that the constant monitoring endured by students could have an impact on their mental state. Sara opined that she was being monitored for most of her day while she was at school, which could affect her psychologically. She further added that modern surveillance has become inescapable and ubiquitous, with cameras being present in households, stores, city streets, and even subway stations.

Moreover, when students are not being monitored through such cameras, their own smartphone cameras keep them under surveillance, which could affect their mental health. Sara continued that this constant screen monitoring had resulted in an increase in anxiety and depression among students. She believed that over-protecting children through excessive surveillance could be detrimental, as making mistakes was a crucial component of learning and development. Consequently, there is a need to strike a balance between ensuring safety and being overly controlling when it comes to children’s privacy.


  • joaquincain

    Joaquin Cain is a 39 year old school teacher and blogger from the United States. He has a passion for education and is always looking for new and innovative ways to help his students learn. He is also a big believer in the power of technology and its ability to help improve education.