July 20, 2021

How to Prioritize Student Safety While Maintaining Data Privacy

GoGuardian Team
GoGuardian Beacon logo on a computer

Schools are on the frontlines of the youth mental health crisis. The rate of suicide for youth aged 10-24 increased nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At the same time, data shows 80% of students who receive mental health services are doing so through their schools.

Students spend an increasing amount of time online: communicating, doing homework, interacting with peers. This means more of their lives are hidden from the view of adults who, previously, would have had a more direct way of knowing students’ interpersonal struggles. Bullying has moved online, as have expressions of mental health struggles, whether suicidality, depression, or various types of self-harm.

To close the gap and intervene before crises turn into tragedies, digital monitoring technologies like GoGuardian Beacon® have entered the scene, licensed by school systems and implemented on school-owned devices. These technologies are able to help students in need when they show warning signs online, but those capabilities are only possible with a certain level of access to student data.

Student mental health is an ongoing concern for parents or guardians, students, and educators alike — but so is data privacy. Balancing the needs and sensitivities on both sides can be a challenge to navigate. As Rebecca Garcia, President of Nevada PTA, said, “The entire reason that any self-[harm] monitoring system should be put into play is to ensure that students get the resources and support they need to be healthy and successful.” But what do schools do with the data collected by those systems? Where are the boundaries? How can schools identify students at risk of mental health crises while also respecting student privacy?

GoGuardian gathered a panel of experts, advocates, and administrators to dig into these questions. The panelists encompassed a broad range of perspectives and experience:

The conversation was moderated by Teddy Hartman, GoGuardian’s Head of Privacy. Here are some core takeaways:

Data Privacy Isn’t About Technology — It’s About Information

Privacy concerns aren’t new to the digital age. Digital monitoring tools collect more information about students, but schools have to collect personal information about students (identifying information, medical records, etc.) in order to function. According to Dr. Jonathan Singer, President of the American Association of Suicidology, schools need to have conversations about data privacy regardless of whether they’re implementing a digital monitoring tool.

“Who in the school should know? What information are you going to communicate to the parents? What is something that the kid has absolutely no right to say ‘no’ to and under what circumstances?... All of these are conversations that have nothing to do with technology,” Singer said. “They’re conversations about what the school does with information.”

Having these conversations before technology ever enters the picture makes it easier to address questions regarding digital monitoring system data.

Have a Clear Purpose for the Data That’s Collected. Avoid Using It for Anything Else.

Digital monitoring technology collect a lot of data that can be used in many different ways. According to Anisha Reddy, Policy Counsel for Future of Privacy Forum, schools need to be clear about what data is being collected and why.

“When we’re thinking about data that’s being collected in the context of self-harm monitoring technology, [make] sure that the information collected is only being used to address the concerns that the data was being collected for in the first place,” Reddy said.

There should also be strong access controls determining who has access to what data, policies laying out when information can or cannot be shared internally and externally, and deletion schedules so data doesn’t exist in perpetuity. “A lot of parents and caregivers would worry about the fact that this [monitoring] technology can build up a record of instances where a student has potentially researched something problematic or harmful and ... this could potentially follow them beyond the K-12 environment and into college, potentially into the workforce,” Reddy said. “A lot of that [concern] can be alleviated by having strong data deletion programs.”

Communicate Clearly with Caregivers and Involve Them in the Conversation

While schools play an important role in students’ lives, teachers and administrators are not the students’ guardians, and they shouldn’t be left in the dark about data collection or privacy.

“You can’t assume that all parents have an understanding and trust of school systems and technology, and you can’t wait until there’s a crisis to communicate to families about how information is being collected and how it’s going to be used,” Garcia said. “Parents need to be at the forefront of understanding what’s happening.”

Tailor communication efforts to the particular community, like Spanish speakers or refugees, for example. Avoid technical language or jargon that may confuse or alienate caregivers; instead, aim to empower them as students’ primary caregivers. One way to empower parents and guardians, according to Dr. Alyssa Moore, Lead for the Digital Learning Office for Delaware Department of Education, is to offer a parent app tied to the school’s monitoring system. “It might not be the exact same view that the school system sees, but it gives them … their own portal to go into so that they feel a part of the system and the supports that are happening,” Moore said.

Schools should also keep in mind that caregivers span the gamut of thoughts and opinions on data monitoring and privacy. “There isn’t a single parent-perspective,” Garcia said.

Define Next Steps for Actionable Data

“Data is useless unless you know what the next step is,” said Singer. 

Along with all of the policies and communication around collecting and sharing data, schools need to outline protocols for how to respond to particular types of data. “How are you going to handle a situation when an alert comes in but notifying the family might put a child in harm’s way? What do you do then?” Moore asked. 

Schools need clear plans for how to address alerts when students are on- or off-premises, who’s responsible when school is in or out of session, or when certain staff are on vacation. Schools should also plan to re-evaluate their processes after a certain amount of time, as lessons are learned and shortcomings are uncovered, and educators need to be informed about what types of alerts may relate to their responsibility as mandatory reporters.

“The ‘what happens next’ question needs to be answered before any technology is deployed,” Reddy said. “Identification can only do so much if there aren’t these guardrails, if there aren’t processes in place.”

Final Takeaways

The panel discussion wrapped up with a lightning round, offering panelists an opportunity to share their top takeaway for listeners. Here’s what they said:

  • Garcia: “Technology doesn’t replace the community dialogue. These are community issues. Children’s safety, mental health, privacy, how data is used — all of those things require broad stakeholder engagement to address effectively.”
  • Moore: “When we’re developing all of these processes ... [we need to consider] how do we make sure that those processes are realistic and can be implemented and followed exactly every time, so that we can provide consistency and do our best to make sure that students and things that might be happening or alerts don’t fall through the cracks.”
  • Reddy: “Communication, communication, communication. This is from companies to schools, schools to companies asking questions, schools and companies to parents and students, and schools with parents and students while they’re building out their processes.”
  • Singer: “If schools are not resourced and educated in the basics about knowing what to do to best help a kid and to think through how the family and the other systems are involved, then the technology doesn’t really matter all that much. … Schools need to be funded and resourced in order to make sure that those are priorities and that those can happen.”

Want to listen to the full discussion? You can find the recording here.