First, Do No Harm: What States Must Consider When Using Data for School Safety

Data Systems That Work, Safeguarding Data
First, Do No Harm: What States Must Consider When Using Data for School Safety

In 2018, Education Week embarked on the heart-breaking task of tracking school shooting numbers. Across the country, 35 students were shot to death in and around their campuses. Harrowing statistics on school shootings and other types of violence, including suicide, have mobilized students across the country to fight for their lives. Simultaneously, state and local education agencies are thinking about what they can do to tackle this issue. Increasingly, these policymakers are having conversations about the role of data in keeping kids safe. While their goals are noble, and their haste is understandable, it is important that state and local leaders ensure that data is only used to help students and never harm them. It is critical that these leaders consider good data practices as a part of these conversations.

This year, states considered six bills that seek to use data in service of school safety. These efforts include the formation of threat assessment teams, reporting tools, as well as new data collections and databases. Legislation that attempts to store sensitive information about students in order to find potential threats is particularly controversial because of the types of data schools might collect. In Florida, the school safety database described in law will contain records on students’ foster care status, treatment information for substance abuse, as well as experiences as victims of bullying. Education and civil rights advocates worry that this database could stigmatize students and misidentify those who are at risk.

Before making any changes, states must consider the equity implications of their efforts to use data as part of school safety measures. The use of behavioral or demographic data to create student profiles in order to assess threats presents a serious risk. Algorithms are not free from the biases that people carry, and are likely to disproportionately impact students of color and those with disabilities, among others. If students feel that they are viewed as a potential threat because of their traits, they do not have a safe learning environment.

Leaders representing educators and civil rights advocates, including the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) and the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), urge policymakers to have conversations about how to do this work thoughtfully in order to avoid adverse consequences. A recent CDT brief asks policymakers to consider, among other things, the chilling effects of overbroad surveillance and potential discriminatory outcomes. It encourages decisionmakers to consult communities as well as state and district privacy officers. Likewise, CoSN executive director Keith Krueger recently told Education Week that this work “requires enormous amounts of conversation, both at a national level and in local communities.”

As with all education data, having these conversations before making policy changes will support equity, protect privacy, and make future efforts more effective in actually protecting students.

Recommendations for Policymakers

  • Follow the Student Data Principles to ensure that schools and service providers in your state understand that data should only be used to help students, never to harm them.
  • Start with your questions. Before planning new safety policies, ask questions about how they can be implemented in a way that respects equity and privacy. How is data going to make schools safer? What data is necessary to collect? Who needs to see the data? How will teachers, counselors, and administrators know how to use it?
  • Strengthen data governance. Clear policies around who creates, manages, and conducts quality control for new systems will be helpful for ensuring that schools can be safe for all children. Ask the following questions: what data are you collecting and why? How will you be transparent? How will you spot and fix biases or other issues?
  • Engage with communities. The data collected can potentially impact many, so it is crucial that communities are in the loop about any new policies and how it might affect them. Families, educators, and civil rights experts must be included in these conversations. Transparency is key to making sure that the data used will truly keep students safe.