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Schools are tracking your kid’s activity online; it’s meant to help, but we fear it could do more harm than good | COMMENTARY

The Sun reported this week that the Baltimore City Public School System has employed surveillance software to not only track student activity on school-issued laptops, but to identify children using search terms online that could indicate they’re considering hurting themselves or experiencing a mental health crisis that requires intervention.

It certainly sounds like a noble aim. But the execution is problematic, to say the least.

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The city system apparently has no policies in place to govern what can — and can’t — be monitored on its thousands of devices. It has sent police to children’s homes in response to their use of certain self-harm-related keywords, as The Real News Network noted earlier this month. And the surveillance undoubtedly targets lower-income families, who are more likely to use school-issued computers instead of their own, personal devices.

Earlier this year, city officials rejected as too invasive the aerial monitoring of potential criminal activity on public streets, where there’s arguably a lower expectation of privacy, from a plane flying several thousand feet overhead. Having school system administrators monitor your child’s online activity, sometimes within your own home, without a protocol in place would seem even more so.

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Granted, such observation should be expected to some degree these days. We’re monitored through most every application we choose to use on internet-capable devices, and employers routinely track activity on computers and cellphones they issue to employees (though the Supreme Court has ruled workers may have a reasonable expectation of keeping personal information private on such devices). Many parents also use software to keep tabs on their own children’s social media posts.

But we should be extra cautious with the access to our children’s information we allow outsiders, particularly when it could lead to law enforcement involvement. We’ve seen too many instances in recent years of police responses to mental health crises leading to the escalation of an incident and the deadly use of force.

City school officials said police visited a dozen homes since the last academic year, based on alerts from the software, taking one child to the emergency room for evaluation. School Police Chief Akil Hamm said most families were grateful to be made aware of potential problems, and we don’t doubt him. But it doesn’t alleviate our other concerns, including the potential for 4th amendment violations involving warrantless searches. If this software usage is to continue in this way, we’d much prefer to see social workers and psychologists responding to red flags, rather than armed officers.

We do recognize the need to find more ways to connect with troubled teens and young people, however. Suicide among the country’s youth has been a growing concern for years as instances of depression and psychological distress have risen. The suicide rate among people age 10 to 24 has climbed every year since 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the U.S. as a whole experiencing 10.7 deaths per 100,000 young people in the 2016 to 2018 time frame — a 57% increase compared with 2007 to 2009. (Maryland’s rate jumped 22%). And the pandemic has only made the situation worse, with emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts rising 51% among girls ages 12 to 17 last year, over 2019, and 4% for boys. Suicide among younger children is also on the rise.

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Learning how to the spot warning signs of depression and other mental illnesses early is critical to a child’s well-being. But we don’t yet know if the potential benefits of this kind of monitoring outweigh the potential abuses.

This is not just an issue for Baltimore City. Other school districts in Maryland and elsewhere use monitoring software in various ways, with their efforts ramping up during the pandemic when so many schools went to a virtual teaching model. In fact, 81% of teachers across the country say they use such software in theirs schools to ensure students are doing their work and to protect them from dangerous content online, like pornography. Some school systems, including those in Rhode Island, give school staff unfettered access to the contents and camera of any student computer at any time.

That’s something we don’t want to see here.

Baltimore’s Public School System has a goal of “issuing computers to 100%” of its students by the end of this month, and it encourages the use of its devices. Families with means can opt out by purchasing their own laptops, but what about those who can’t afford it? They have no choice but to be monitored. And they deserve to know how.

School districts, including Baltimore’s, must put policies into place — in consultation with families and guardians — for how and when information will be monitored and used, and the protocol must be clearly communicated to all affected. To continue on the current path is to risk doing more harm than good.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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