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Analysis

Social Monitoring of Students Not Making Schools Safer. Risks Outweigh Rewards.

New tools to monitor and report on “suspicious activity” in schools treat children like potential suspects without making them any safer.

Cross-posted from the Sun Sentinel

As part of a response to last year’s Park­land school shoot­ing, lawmakers in Flor­ida this month, over the objec­tions of some of their colleagues, passed a bill that would open the door to arming teach­ers. But the same bill, which was signed into law last week by Governor DeSantis, had another danger­ous idea: new ways to monitor and report on “suspi­cious activ­ity” in schools, an initi­at­ive that builds on a failed model from the war on terror. This approach would turn our chil­dren into poten­tial suspects without making them any safer.

It’s no surprise that states and schools are turn­ing to surveil­lance tools — they are being promoted by federal agen­cies as the solu­tion to school shoot­ings and other ills. The Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity has issued a “Guide for Prevent­ing and Protect­ing Against Gun Viol­ence” in K-12 schools, which says little about guns. It instead encour­ages schools to have teach­ers and students report suspi­cious beha­vior using a post-9/11 program called the National Suspi­cious Activ­ity Report­ing Initi­at­ive.

The Depart­ment of Educa­tion has advanced a similar approach, which is also found in new bills on threat assess­ments recently intro­duced in Congress.

But in more than 15 years of oper­a­tion, this system hasn’t made us safer, and it isn’t likely to make schools safer either. A 2012 report from a two-year-long, bipar­tisan Senate invest­ig­a­tion of fusion centers concluded that the system had “yiel­ded little, if any, bene­fit to federal coun­terter­ror­ism intel­li­gence efforts.” In fact, reports produced by fusion centers were “shoddy,” “rarely timely,” and consisted of “predom­in­antly useless inform­a­tion.”

Suspi­cious activ­ity report­ing was developed in the wake of the Septem­ber 11 attacks; it encour­ages state and local police to act as the eyes and ears of federal coun­terter­ror­ism offi­cials, report­ing undefined “suspi­cious activ­ity” they spot in the course of their duties. These reports are then sent to fusion centers — a shared space for federal, state, local, and tribal law enforce­ment offi­cials, along with private sector part­ners — where they ostens­ibly facil­it­ate the flow of inform­a­tion and contrib­ute to fusion centers’ own analyses of suspi­cious activ­ity.

The Senate invest­ig­a­tion also found that the “suspi­cious” activ­it­ies repor­ted through fusion centers frequently had no connec­tion to viol­ence or crimin­al­ity. Muslims, in partic­u­lar, were singled out for suspi­cion: a DHS officer flagged as suspi­cious a seminar on marriage held at a mosque, while a north Texas fusion center advised keep­ing an eye out for Muslim civil liber­ties groups and sympath­etic indi­vidu­als and organ­iz­a­tions.

Never­the­less, school districts across the coun­try are turn­ing to online surveil­lance tools to suss out suspi­cious activ­ity. The Bren­nan Center’s review of a govern­ment contract­ing data­base showed that as of 2018, at least 63 school districts had purchased social media monit­or­ing soft­ware (though the number is likely far higher since inclu­sion in the data­base is volun­tary), and at least seven school districts in Flor­ida have purchased the tools since 2015. None of the vendors selling this soft­ware has been able to point to empir­ical evid­ence that their product can reli­ably predict viol­ence.

In fact, it is diffi­cult for computers to effect­ively inter­pret posts on Face­book and Instagram. Programs that rely on key words will inev­it­ably capture reams of irrel­ev­ant inform­a­tion: the police in Jack­son­ville, Flor­ida discovered that flag­ging the word “bomb” would turn up not early signs of threats but posts describ­ing pizza or beer as “the bomb” (mean­ing excel­lent). While natural language processing programs, which attempt to discern the mean­ing of social media post­ings, are meant to differ­en­ti­ate between “bomb pizza” and a bomb threat, these tools don’t work well in prac­tice, espe­cially when it comes to posts from members of minor­ity groups or non-English speak­ers.

These diffi­culties will surely be magni­fied when it comes to teens, who are known to use coded language to keep grownups from catch­ing on. And in the current envir­on­ment of fear, schools can easily over­re­act to posts brought to their atten­tion: this month two students sued a New Jersey school that suspen­ded them for post­ing Snapchat pictures of legally owned guns with no sugges­tion of a threat.

Moreover, just as Muslims are tagged with the terror­ism label, chil­dren of color will too easily be tarred as crim­inal. With school discip­line dispro­por­tion­ately target­ing African Amer­ican and Latinx youth regard­less of the sever­ity of the offense, there is a clear risk that their online activ­it­ies will be regarded as suspi­cious and repor­ted under the system recom­men­ded by federal offi­cials. With fusion centers in the mix, chil­dren could become the subject of law enforce­ment invest­ig­a­tions on the basis of preju­dice rather than proof, with an inart­ful post poten­tially stored in FBI and police data­bases.

Schools have a respons­ib­il­ity to explore new ways to keep chil­dren safe. And they have always watched students in hall­ways and classrooms. But these new monit­or­ing tools cast a far wider net, sweep­ing in a vast range of data and acclimat­ing chil­dren to a surveil­lance state, with little show­ing of effect­ive­ness and partic­u­larly high stakes for chil­dren of color. We should put the brakes on programs that treat chil­dren as poten­tial suspects and instead invest in initi­at­ives that might actu­ally make schools safer, such as increased resources for mental health and coun­sel­ing, ensur­ing that adults keep guns locked away, and of course the elephant in the room: gun control. Continu­ing down the road we’re on would simply repeat past mistakes, this time with kids.