Spying on Kids to Prevent School Shootings Will Backfire

Politicians want to impose tech surveillance in schools. If they do, we’ll lose the one thing necessary to stop attacks.

Credit: Justin Yoast / EyeEm/Getty

“As a busy parent, reading every text message, post, and email just isn’t realistic.”

If you’re a parent, this line, which comes from the website for a service called Bark, sounds correct. But Bark isn’t talking about the texts and emails that you receive—it’s talking about the ones sent to your kids. Bark is a surveillance tool that uses language detection to monitor text messages, emails, and social media interactions for any “potential safety concerns.” And the company markets its product to schools.

Following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Bark offered its surveillance services, for free, to all public and private K-12 schools in the United States. The company now claims to have a presence within more than 1,300 school districts.

Bark isn’t the only technology finding its way into school districts across America. Schools are either installing or at least considering everything from facial recognition to iris scans to gunfire-detecting microphones. And if Senate Republicans have their way, these kinds of programs will soon become even more pervasive. Last week, Senator John Cornyn proposed an update to the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which, if passed, would reportedly compel schools to implement tech monitoring as part of a strategy to reduce school mass shootings.

Senate Republicans are essentially proposing a system that imposes total surveillance within U.S. schools. Students would receive their education in an environment where their every move is monitored and analyzed. Regardless of how effective that might be, it also risks eroding kids’ trust, which matters because trust may be the very thing necessary to prevent the horrors legislators are trying to stop.

In January, a team of researchers from the London School of Economics released a report that examined children’s data and online privacy. Their study found that surveillance had several negative side effects for children. “It might obstruct children’s development of important skills,” the researchers wrote, “and it could affect negatively the trust relationship between the parent and the child.”

Maybe this is why kids run from surveillance — teens today are notoriously creative in finding ways to escape the all-seeing eye.

Earlier research has come to similar conclusions. A paper published in 2010 found that children need space to learn how to trust others and be trusted themselves; however, surveillance greatly reduces those opportunities for growth. A separate study that same year reported that constant monitoring may work against efforts to help children build trusting relationships with adults and learn to comply with social norms. A later Canadian study suggested the same: Teens who were not routinely monitored were more likely to share details about their lives with their parents.

Maybe this is why kids run from surveillance. Teens today are notoriously creative in finding ways to escape the all-seeing eye, creating fake Instagram (“finsta”) accounts or even chatting on Google Docs instead of more popular apps, where they know school administrators and parents are lurking — or, at least, where a monitoring program can track them.

Over the summer, NBC Nightly News anchor Kate Snow toured a new school in Michigan designed “with curved walls and hiding places — specifically designed to deter active shooters.” The clip went viral for reasons that are clear: Rather than solving the problem of school shootings, administrators solved for the threat. The approach completely misses the point. Instead of designing schools under the assumption that someone will come in and kill a bunch of kids, we should be preventing someone from being able to kill a bunch of kids in a school.

Invasive surveillance tech wants to solve the same problem, but does it make any more sense than a school designed with curved walls?

The particulars of the spaces, physical or otherwise, that we inhabit can change who we are. Living in an environment of total surveillance — where bodies, thoughts, and words are all constantly monitored — will inevitably alter our perception of the world and of ourselves. As researcher Tonya Rooney argues, surveillance gives kids the message that they should always be on the alert that “others” in the world cannot be trusted. Surveillance betrays “an underlying lack of trust in both the children themselves and in all those others who share the space around them,” she writes.

In October, another video clip went viral, this time featuring footage taken from inside a high school in Portland, Oregon. In the video, a student named Angel Granados-Diaz stands in a school hallway armed with a gun. An adult — Keanon Lowe, a coach at the school — approaches Granados-Diaz and takes the gun away. As it happens, Granados-Diaz didn’t intended to hurt anyone other than himself that day, and Lowe knew he was in distress because another student had notified school administrators. Once Lowe disarmed Granados-Diaz, he detained him — in a sustained embrace.

“Obviously, he broke down, and I just wanted to let him know that I was there for him,” Lowe reportedly said later. Sure, we watched it all unfold thanks to surveillance footage, but it was the trust between student and adult that prevented a tragedy.

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