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Youth Monitoring in Public Schools - An Educator's Perspective

As online education, and the use of technology in schools to aid in education, has become commonplace, we are facing questions about youth surveillance, access to online information, and data collection. Who has rights to monitor youth activity online? Where should restrictions on information access be placed, and by whom? How do teachers protect their students’ right to information? How do teachers protect themselves?


Local, state and federal legislation is impacting the ways in which youth online activity is required to be monitored and reported, as well as the types of information approved for student consumption. The day-to-day burden of navigating these laws is being placed upon educators who are growing increasingly concerned about the future of teaching and the future of public education in America.


Fearful Teachers

Teaching has never been harder than it is in today’s American public schools. Teachers and administrators are leaving the profession in droves; many schools have unfilled teaching and/or staffing positions that are challenging to fill, even when bonuses are offered; and increased demands around online information filtering and monitoring is putting teachers in a position of enforcement they have not previously navigated. They are worried about how to help their students access needed information - particularly those in marginalized communities - without putting themselves or their students at risk of punishment.


Some teachers are leery about the kinds of filtering parameters school districts are encouraged or forced to set in order to be protected from the liability of overreaching legislative mandates. Additionally, they are concerned that technology being implemented to monitor student online activity is opening teachers up to potential requirements to report students. Many are fearful about losing their jobs or, in some cases, being held criminally liable—charged legally for having “offensive” material in the classroom or lessons. In some cases, this can include information that has previously been approved by school districts to teach; it is all up for review.


The Impact on Marginalized Communities

Teachers are increasingly scared of what this all means for the impact on public education for all children. These concerns are amplified for children of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+. America has seen a dramatic increase in Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and restrictions around instructional materials for racism in the classroom. These laws are written to be vague and up for discussion; interpretations of them vary greatly from one district to another. Pairing these restrictions with increased monitoring of youth online activity is prohibiting and/or discouraging youth from accessing such information.


Consider the mental health and safety of marginalized students, not to mention the restriction of access to information essential for marginalized students regarding topics related to race, gender, and other topics that will likely be flagged as inappropriate or obscene. Students may lose the right to look up legitimate resources as an LGBTQ+ individual and be able to access many reputable sites to get information and research topics of importance to them as an LGBTQ+ individual. Limiting their ability to research topics at school isolates them. The implications of online privacy and access — or lack of access — to information is unquestionably impacting students of marginalized communities differently from their peers.


Who is Calling the Shots

Not all school systems are facing the same battles around information access and data privacy. Traditionally, federal laws have played a minor role in regulating education, making local governments the dominant determinants of educational policy. Local school districts, municipalities, and state laws directly contribute to the distribution of educational information and user privacy. In many cases, these varying levels of governance are creating conflicting instruction for educators.


Florida depicts a perfect storm of increased requirements for state-approved authorities to select textbooks and educational material. In April 2022, the FL Department of Education stepped in and removed 54 mathematics textbooks that had already been vetted and approved by multiple districts from the state adoption list citing that the math curricula were filled with indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism and social-emotional learning.


Two other prominent bills recently enacted in Florida give rise to concern over information access, especially for LGBTQ+ individuals. The first, HB 1557, the “Parental Rights in Education Bill” - though known to many who fear its effects as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” - prohibits material and instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet another bill, HB 1467, requires schools to provide a searchable list of teaching materials including textbooks, library books, and digital resources (i.e. websites, videos, online educational tools). Under HB 1467, any parent or member of the public may object to an instructional material and these objections can be used to influence the state approval of such materials. In many counties, teachers were directed to cover their classroom libraries until every book on the shelf was vetted by the district appointed specialist tasked to approve the titles. Various interpretations of HB 1467 have teachers across Florida fearful of being charged with a possible felony.


Conclusions

Currently many school districts have access to surveillance programs that allow real-time monitoring of student computer stations at school (programs such as Lightspeed). On the one hand, teachers working with students who are using devices need the ability to monitor real-time student work to ensure students remain on task. However, there is a potential dark side that has teachers questioning the scope of their responsibility.


Young people value their privacy and while students may be savvy internet users, they require special privacy protections as they often are not fully equipped to weigh the potential benefits and risks of their internet use. The solution is not to restrict information access across the board, but rather to teach digital literacy and responsible information usage. This is especially important when young people are seeking information around complex topics, such as LGBTQ+ identity, health, and safety.


If future bills are passed to protect children from “online harms,” what will that look like? How will “harms” be defined? And who will be punished - and how - for the access to such information? It’s shifted from just wanting to make sure students aren’t logged into Minecraft when they should be working on an assignment to how long before teachers are responsible for providing parents information about exactly what their child is doing online during class while at school? Will teachers be monitored to see how they are monitoring their students? What if a teacher fails to “catch” a student who is looking at something deemed “obscene” by legislators? Will this become a felony offense? Educators are being put in the precarious situation of asking the question of “What is my liability?” above “What should my students be learning?”


Conversation about the intersection of youth monitoring, information access, and the impact on teachers help communities understand successful approaches and pitfalls. There are forums where community members can share their experiences with solutions, resources, and programs. We invite you to share your own experience by commenting on this blog and reading more about the intersection of youth monitoring and marginalized identity.

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