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Republicans aim to stop school shootings with mass surveillance

The Response Act calls on schools to increase monitoring of students' online activity.

  • The Response Act was introduced by Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and was co-sponsored by five other Republican senators.
  • Among other measures, the bill aims to "incentivize schools to enforce internet safety policies that detect online activities of minors."
  • However, there is no evidence showing that student surveillance technologies actually prevent violence.

In an effort to prevent mass shootings, Senate Republicans have proposed a bill that calls for school districts to use surveillance technology to monitor students' online activity.

The bill, entitled the Response Act, would incentivize schools to purchase technology designed to flag online activity from minors "who are at imminent risk of committing self-harm or extreme violence against others." The legislation was introduced by Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican whom the National Rifle Association (NRA) has given a perfect score for supporting Second Amendment rights. Among the 10 measures on the bill, one mentions firearms.

That measure would create federally funded, nationwide task forces to investigate and prosecute unlicensed firearms dealers. Cornyn's bill also calls for boosting federal funding for states' mental health programs, increasing law enforcements' access to active shooter training, and speeding up the death penalty for mass murderers.

But some privacy and student advocates are concerned about the idea of incentivizing public schools to implement surveillance technology. For millions of students, this kind of mass surveillance is already the norm.

The $3 billion school security industry

Many U.S. school districts have turned to the school security industry for help in the wake of school shootings. In addition to more traditional security techniques like metal detectors and X-ray machines, the school security industry offers services that keep a close eye on what students are doing online.

Companies like Gaggle, for example, monitor students' activity on school computers by scanning through documents, emails and even calendar entries. Meanwhile, companies like Social Sentinel look beyond school networks to scan students' social media profiles for potential threats, claiming to offer schools "total awareness."

It's unclear exactly how many schools use these services, but it's likely that millions of students in the U.S. are being surveilled when they walk into school. The problem that some privacy and student advocates have is that there's no hard evidence showing that these new approaches really work.

False flags and a lack of evidence

There's no evidence that any measure to prevent school shootings is effective, according to a 2019 study that examined various prevention techniques and school shootings from 2000 to 2018. But school security technologies do produce false flags, whether over "To Kill a Mockingbird" essays or tweets about the movie "Shooter".

"There's no proven information showing that social media monitoring is useful," Amelia Vance, a student privacy advocate with the Future of Privacy Forum, told NPR. "We have a lot of data showing it overwhelms with false flags."

Vance also noted that surveillance systems – which can divert school districts' time and money away from other areas of investment – can change the learning environment.

"You are forcing schools into a position where they would have to surveil by default," Vance told The Guardian. "There's a privacy debate to be had about whether surveillance is the right tactic to take in schools, whether it inhibits students' trust in their schools and their ability to learn."

No easy solution

In the wake of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., members of the public at a school board meeting in Old Bridge, N.J., asked school officials, "What are you going to do to prevent the next school shooting?"

"Things changed after Parkland," David Cittadino, superintendent of Oak Bridge schools, told NPR.

Facing this kind of pressure from scared and frustrated parents, it's no wonder that many schools are willing to try out unproven methods in an attempt to bolster security for students.

"It's similar to post-9/11," Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a lawyer with the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school, told Education Week. "There is an understandable instinct to do whatever you can to stop the next horrible thing from happening. But the solution doesn't solve the problem, and it creates new issues of its own."

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