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The Hidden Costs of High-Tech Surveillance in Schools

Students of color already face disproportionate punishment in school. Deploying technologies like facial recognition cameras and “aggression detecting microphones” promises to make the problem even worse.

October 17, 2019

The phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” has long been used to describe how schools respond to discip­lin­ary prob­lems with excess­ively strin­gent policies that create prison-like envir­on­ments and funnel chil­dren who don’t fall in line into the crim­inal justice system. Now, schools are invest­ing in surveil­lance systems that will likely exacer­bate exist­ing dispar­it­ies.

The costs of overly harsh meas­ures fall mostly on students from margin­al­ized back­grounds. For example, Black girls are six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspen­sion compared to their white coun­ter­parts. Students with disab­il­it­ies also exper­i­ence dispro­por­tion­ate punish­ment.

Over­all, our nation’s most at-risk chil­dren are incur­ring repeated and severe discip­lin­ary actions in school, leav­ing them nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juven­ile justice system. As a result, many students exper­i­ence school as a place of continu­ous scru­tiny. One went so far to say that he “felt constantly in a state of alert, afraid to make even the smal­lest mistake.” This is a seri­ous and pervas­ive prob­lem that schools need to fix, and installing high-tech surveil­lance equip­ment will do just the oppos­ite.

When schools intro­duce these tech­no­lo­gies, they open the door to labeling students’ normal thoughts, words, and move­ments as danger­ous — and poten­tially involving law enforce­ment. As a former teacher in a 99 percent Black, low-income neigh­bor­hood, I am terri­fied for my former students whose natural speech patterns or move­ments were often wrong­fully perceived as prob­lem­atic by those unfa­mil­iar with the community.

Advoc­ates of increased school surveil­lance often say that even if a few inac­curacies arise, ulti­mately the bene­fits of increased safety outweigh the costs. But whose safety are we actu­ally talk­ing about? For students of color, who are already dispro­por­tion­ately seen as threats, over-discip­lined, and put out of school, more mech­an­isms built to police and turn them over to the juven­ile justice system will only worsen racial dispar­it­ies in educa­tional attain­ment.

number of tech compan­ies are capit­al­iz­ing on the grow­ing market for student surveil­lance meas­ures as vari­ous districts and school lead­ers commit them­selves to prevent­ing acts of viol­ence. Rekor Systems, for instance, recently announced the launch of OnGuard, a program that claims to “advance student safety” by imple­ment­ing count­less surveil­lance and “threat assess­ment” mech­an­isms in and around schools.

The OnGuard pack­age offers three main features to school districts. One is vehicle recog­ni­tion soft­ware with track­ing radar and full range cameras in school busses and school bus stop signs meant to monitor the activ­ity of students as well as surveil passing pedes­tri­ans and vehicles. The others are auto­matic license plate read­ers with move­ment detec­tion capab­il­it­ies around school grounds, as well as 24/7 online social media monit­or­ing.

With these tech­no­lo­gies, Rekor can place vehicles or people on “watch lists,” and depend­ing on local laws, it can auto­mat­ic­ally send sens­it­ive inform­a­tion such as license plate numbers or foot­age of vehicles and people to school admin­is­trat­ors and even law enforce­ment. The video soft­ware also claims to be able to detect and notify school author­it­ies about “suspi­cious move­ment patterns,” though there is little inform­a­tion on how suspi­cious move­ments would be clas­si­fied or determ­ined.

Schools are also consid­er­ing using facial recog­ni­tion tech­no­logy to stop “unwel­come visit­ors” from enter­ing school premises. As a prac­tical matter, these tools are unlikely to prevent the threats that schools are most concerned about. Most perpet­rat­ors of mass school viol­ence have been current or former students and would not have been considered danger­ous upon entry. Facial recog­ni­tion systems pose risks as they continue to misid­entify people of color. Moreover, given the tech­no­logy’s capa­city to map the move­ments and asso­ci­ations of students, teach­ers, and school person­nel through­out the day, the plan sets a danger­ous preced­ent of constant surveil­lance and risks misuse of sens­it­ive data.

Simil­arly, multiple schools have intro­duced “aggres­sion detect­ing micro­phones” in hall­ways, cafet­er­ias, and other common spaces. Compan­ies claim that the devices can pick up on anger in human voice and alert school author­it­ies before an incid­ent may occur, but analysis done by ProP­ub­lica shows that the detect­ors are unre­li­able. In a two-hour test period the detect­ors produced 565 false posit­ives from sounds such as laugh­ing, cough­ing, singing, and discus­sion. On top of that, the devices often failed to pick up on actual expres­sions of aggres­sion such as scream­ing or shout­ing. Again, though the useful­ness of such tech­no­logy is unclear, the likely impact on margin­al­ized youth who are wrong­fully treated as crim­in­ally disrupt­ive is not.

While none of these meth­ods have been proven to be effect­ive in deter­ring viol­ence, similar systems have resul­ted in divert­ing resources away from enrich­ment oppor­tun­it­ies, poli­cing school communit­ies to a point where students feel afraid to express them­selves, and placing espe­cially danger­ous targets on students of color who are already dispro­por­tion­ately mislabeled and punished.

Take the case of Hunts­ville City Schools, an Alabama school district that paid a former FBI agent over $150,000 to imple­ment a social media monit­or­ing program. Through the course of the program, about 600 accounts were invest­ig­ated, result­ing in the expul­sion of 14 students. Twelve of them were African Amer­ican, a stark figure consid­er­ing that African Amer­ican students make up only 40 percent of the total student popu­la­tion.

An invest­ig­a­tion by the South­ern Poverty Law Center found that the district’s policies were clearly push­ing out students that did not pose a threat to others. Some were punished simply for posing with BB guns in their own homes. One student came under scru­tiny for “hold­ing too much money” in a photo, and another was discip­lined for wear­ing a sweat­shirt honor­ing her late father because it was perceived as gang paraphernalia by school offi­cials.

While there is no ques­tion that author­it­ies must have a sense of urgency when deal­ing with threats of viol­ence, federal educa­tion data shows that schools are actu­ally safer than they’ve been in decades. Between 1992 and 2016, crimes at school ranging from theft to seri­ous viol­ent victim­iz­a­tion declined across demo­graphic groups.

When fear and panic lead to the wrong­ful arrests, expul­sions, and crim­in­al­iz­a­tion of chil­dren who inflic­ted no harm, we must think deeply about the damage done in the name of public safety. Too often, surveil­lance systems ostens­ibly designed to keep schools safer have exactly the oppos­ite effect for the most margin­al­ized students.

In order to make real gains, school systems must expand their prior­it­iz­a­tion of student phys­ical safety to include over­all student well­ness by foster­ing envir­on­ments of mutual trust among students, teach­ers, officers, and other person­nel. Rather than alloc­ate more resources to inef­fect­ive and poten­tially harm­ful surveil­lance meas­ures, districts ought to invest in evid­ence-based prac­tices to reduce viol­ence such as social emotional learn­ing. They must also ensure that schools are adequately equipped with beha­vior special­ists, coun­selors, and psycho­lo­gists based on the specific needs of a given student popu­la­tion.

All students deserve safety, which also means the safety to make mistakes, think freely, and express them­selves without fear of hand­cuffs being placed around their wrists.

Read the state­ment of concern on social media monit­or­ing in K-12 schools from the Bren­nan Center and the Center for Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy.