Worcester School Committee stops use of a platform that can monitor student internet searches about self-harm | #privacy | #internetlaw

The Worcester School Committee has stopped the district’s use of a platform that could monitor student internet searches that include terms around self-harm, citing privacy and other concerns.

Now, the topic will be further discussed at a sub-committee meeting.

Robert Walton, the district’s information technology officer, told members of the school committee Thursday night that the district had run a pilot program using a platform called Lightspeed systems. With that platform, an algorithm can alert school officials if a student has searched for terms like “I want to kill myself.”

Superintendent Maureen Binienda said the pilot program ran the platform on Worcester Public Schools Chromebooks and iPads in students’ possession for students in four schools. The platform does not monitor students’ personal devices. If a student searched terms that triggered an alert, a message went to Binienda, School Safety Director Robert Pezzella, school principals and Manager of Social Emotional Learning Maura Mahoney. From there, officials can contact families.

So far, the program had only produced about 12 alarms, Binienda said, and only two of those may have been circumstances where a student was considering harming themselves.

Citing privacy and other concerns, school committee members voted unanimously Thursday night to halt the program and to send the issue to the governance committee for further discussion.

Member Tracy O’Connell Novick said she had significant concerns about student privacy concerns. Novick was also said this kind of method is not the way psychologists and school adjustment counselors are taught to deal with self-harm issues.

“If we were talking about students actually immediately getting contacted by an adult that we know that that individual student trusts, that would potentially be a different thing,” Novick said. “To have the superintendent, the manager of safety, among others then be alerting principals and the students’ parents is a very, very different kind of circumstance.”

Binienda said that a trusted person from the school building is the person who calls the student following an alert.

Member Laura Clancey echoed Novick’s concerns.

“How we’re alerted and what we do with this information could be a detriment to the students,” Clancey said.

If a student is having thoughts about self-harm that are connected to family members, having the school contact a family member after seeing an alert through this platform could create a further concern, member Molly McCullough suggested.

McCullough said she also wanted to hear more feedback from students about the platform, as well as input from psychologists.

Fatimah Daffaie, one of the school committee’s student representatives, said she wasn’t sure that students would be comfortable with the platform.

All members of the committee stressed that student safety is an important topic and wanted to have more questions answered specific to the platform.

Member John Monfredo said the district should support the use of the platform because it could save a student’s life.

“This is nothing to just push under the table,” he said.

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