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Are Schools Sacrificing Students' Privacy in the Name of Safety?

Use this lesson plan to help students think critically about online surveillance at school.

Jeff Knutson | December 10, 2020

The school surveillance industry is booming. While rare, tragedies like school shootings get lots of media attention, and taken together with more common problems like bullying, self-harm, and suicide, these issues raise important questions about students' safety. Add pandemic-related concerns on top of this, and schools and districts are investing in a wide range of student surveillance measures, both on campus and online. But what are the trade-offs when we prioritize safety over privacy?

Monitoring software can track what students say and do online, sometimes even on students' privately owned devices or social media accounts. In some cases schools might even use tools like location tracking or facial recognition software. Many students might not realize just how invasive some digital safety measures have become.

Student safety may be paramount, but how far should schools and districts go when balancing students' safety with their privacy? Could safety measures have a chilling effect on students' academic freedom or intellectual curiosity? And how does the pandemic complicate things, where distance learning may mean students' classrooms are their own homes, or where in-person learning may require contact tracing?

Use this lesson plan to start a discussion with your students about the delicate balance between privacy and safety in the digital world.

Recommended for: 

Grades: 8-12

Subjects: Digital citizenship, journalism, social studies, ELA

Prep for teachers

In the classroom

Hook (8-10 minutes): 

Before screening the video, give your students an essential question to focus their viewing: "How far should schools go toward protecting students' safety without infringing on students' privacy?"

If you haven't already, distribute the handout and ask students to use it to take notes as they watch. Explain that they can fill in the "At first I thought ... " and "But now I think ... " boxes at any point during or after watching the video.

School Surveillance Worksheet

Show the video "Your School Is Watching You Online ... Should They?" Consider pausing at various points throughout and/or screening the video more than once to aid in students' understanding. 

Pressing play on the YouTube video will set third-party cookies controlled by Google if you are logged in to Chrome. See Google's cookie information for details.

Discussion (20 minutes):

Start off by asking students to share what they wrote down on the "Thinking Critically About School Surveillance" handout. Continue the discussion using any or all of the questions and prompts below:

  • When it comes to students' safety, how far should schools go in surveilling students, both on school grounds and online?
  • School administrators generally have the right (and responsibility) to search students' physical property if there's a reasonable risk to someone's health or safety. Do you think this should extend to students' digital lives? What about during remote learning, when students aren't physically in school?
  • How much should we trust computer algorithms to accurately flag or identify school safety or security risks? Knowing that algorithms can be biased, do you think the potential safety benefits outweigh the harm caused by this bias?
  • Do you think some school surveillance measures could actually make students less safe? If so, how might this happen?
  • Could digital surveillance in schools lead to a chilling effect, where students with opposing or minority viewpoints might self-censor, or be more reluctant to share their ideas or voice their opinions in school?
  • Do you think that school surveillance efforts reinforce or promote the idea that we should expect to lose a certain degree of our privacy in school (and maybe in society at large)?
  • Where do you draw the line between surveillance in the name of safety and people's right to privacy and freedom?

Possible follow-ups

  • Teach the lesson "Debating the Privacy Line" from our Digital Citizenship Curriculum.
  • Visit KQED Learn and join an online discussion of the video you just watched. How are students from other schools responding to these issues?
  • Share the article, "As COVID Creeps into Schools, Surveillance Tech Follows" from The 74. Ask students to consider the implications of school safety in the context of the pandemic. For students who are (or may soon return to) learning in person, would they be willing to trade some degree of privacy for the sake of virus contact tracing? 
  • Share the article, "Schools Are Spying on Students -- but Students Can Fight Back" from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Ask students to consider the ways that some students might be more affected than others by school surveillance measures. Then, have students discuss whether they think the EFF's suggested countermeasures would be applicable or appropriate for the situation at their school.
  • Investigation activity: Ask students to research the student safety and surveillance measures -- both physical and digital -- that are actually in place in their school or district. Help students consider how to find this information (how can they find out? Where should they look? Whom should they ask?). Then have students consider: How transparent are the school's policies? Do they think most of their peers are aware of the degree they're being monitored (or not)? Finish by having students assess whether or not their school's safety and surveillance measures are in line with what they're comfortable with in terms of their own safety and/or privacy.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.