Protecting students from intrusive school social surveillance

Thanks to my State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem for pushing legislation in Massachusetts to protect elementary, secondary, and tertiary public school students from intrusive social media surveillance by school administrators — and for being proactive on this before it becomes a big problem, as it inevitably would without legislation.

No student should have to turn over their passwords and login info to their school just to be permitted to get an education. We cannot develop a healthy, independent, and democratic civil society if students face omnipresent surveillance that discourages them from branching out in their views during a formative period.

I also believe such online monitoring could have a chilling effect on young people being able to examine and test their self-identity, particularly in less welcoming communities.

While students and children do not always have full and unlimited rights, they must retain a reasonable right to privacy. That principle doesn’t change just because technology does.

Protecting children and students by empowering them

Promoting the rights of children, youth, and students is vitally important for keeping them safe. We’ve seen the footage this week from Spring Valley High School of a girl being body-slammed and seriously injured by a police officer in her school — an all-too-common occurrence. While this itself is a grave abuse (➚) and clearly one escalated by racism and misogynoir (learn more➚), one additional element we need to be aware of is how many schools (including in Massachusetts) have adopted policies that may limit our ability to find out about these incidents in future.

Such measures include monitoring students’ internet communications on campus and restricting or confiscating cell phones. While some of this is ostensibly to reduce distractions, its secondary (and I hope unintended!) effect is to reduce the ability of students to record authority figures or otherwise get the word out about abuses or inappropriate behaviors by adults who are supposed to be keeping them safe.

This doesn’t just apply to inappropriate uses of physical force to contain situations, but also to other types of abuse. There have been more than enough institutional sex abuse scandals erupting in recent years to learn from. These often occurred in eras where children and youth were neither respected nor readily empowered to document illegal actions (of any kind) by adults in positions of power. We now know that young people are endangered when they are unable to advocate for themselves against powerful adults or institutions and are unable to prove what is happening.

It would be a serious mistake to move toward policies that prioritize omnipresent surveillance and policing while deprioritizing student rights and student privacy. Such an approach doesn’t foster a culture of being willing to constructively stand up to authority or institutions when there are abuses or illegal activity. (And reportedly, a student who tried to intervene physically in this case to protect his or her classmate from abuse was also disciplined by the school, which should raise some similar questions too.)

In immediate terms, while we always hope these things won’t happen in our schools, if they do happen, it’s much better that we know about them quickly so we can stop them and act against those responsible. For that to happen, students must feel comfortable about coming forward and be empowered to do so. Part of a safe learning environment is not just taking a “public safety in schools” approach but also ensuring students can advocate for themselves when something isn’t right.

In the bigger picture, I believe that the latter approach – respecting the rights of young people and protecting their ability to blow the whistle on abuses of power without fearing recrimination – also helps promote a generally more engaged and empowered civic attitude for a lifetime. Part of our education system should be to encourage people to defend each other and themselves from abuses of power wherever it may occur. It should never be to teach our children that they are powerless to stop injustice, illegal activity, or abuse.

You tried it though.

Over the years, many a high school principal or administrator has tried — with varying degrees of success — to suppress something their high school’s student newspaper would like to print. Generally, the content in these cases is inflammatory or inappropriate in some way and occasionally even potentially dangerous. Sometimes, the school officials are actually trying to cover something up.

In many cases, the courts have smacked down these administrators for unconstitutional infringements of students’ rights to free expression and free press (such as it is). Whereas other forms of expression can sometimes be limited for being overly disruptive to the learning environment, the courts seem to feel that broadly speaking, student newspaper content is pretty harmless, however important it might seem in the heat of the moment to students and staff inside a little bubble.

Most administrations would probably be better off ignoring anything that’s not outright criminal or endangering someone’s safety, because the suppression — much like the proverbial coverup — is nearly always worse than the “crime” and blows something tiny into a national story.

And that brings us to this week’s openly mockable student newspaper suppression attempt by a misguided high school principal. The reasonably successful high school football team of Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, PA is called the “Redskins,” like the Washington NFL team and the teams of many other backward schools nationwide. In an effort to protest the highly offensive nature of the team’s name, the staff of the student newspaper vowed not to print the school’s team name — following the lead of a number of major real newspapers for the real football team.

Principal Rob McGee responded initially, in November during state playoffs, by informing the student paper that they “[didn’t] have the right to not use the word Redskins.”

A truly laughable attempt. In what way did the principal think he was going to keep a school paper from not printing the name of the school’s football team? There’s no way that order passes constitutional muster. There’s clearly no public harm or student harm in not printing something in a school paper.

I’m fairly certain that any case where the courts have ever ruled against a student newspaper has been to tell them they did not have a right to print some controversial thing. I doubt there’s ever been a ruling saying they had to print something — short of perhaps some discrimination/equal opportunity case.

Unsurprisingly, the students running the paper now have legal representation and plan to reinstate their policy of refusing to use the term. Good luck stopping them, Principal McGee. You tried it though.