Should schools adopt monitoring on students in response to COVID outbreaks and mass shootings?
This brief memo responds to the request to provide a risk assessment of the potential adoption of electronic monitoring in the school district. Per request, I focused on the ethical risks of this technology. The guiding principles of the Belmont Report provide a framework to engage the challenges that may arise if the District adopts this form of monitoring. The rest of this memo provides a brief outline of how this technology may raise concerns in regard to respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.
Respect for Persons
I would believe school and institutions’ appropriateness scrutiny should be demonstrated in response to predicaments like sexting, mass shooting, public health obligations, etc., arguing that young students are considered vulnerable populations to such events. It is a matter of balancing competing claims between 3 elements: information, comprehension, and voluntariness.
However, in most surveillance cases that involve human subjects, respect for subjects to enter into such a monitoring process voluntarily, with adequate information, is a widespread agreement for the consent process.
It seems that the principle of respect for one requires students to volunteer for participation. On the other hand, informing the subject of some pertinent aspects of the monitoring is likely to impair its purpose’s validity and effectiveness.
Moreover, a common understanding among the public does not exist; that said, most students or parents do not know precisely what they’ve signed up for. The magnitude and time frame for such implications remain unclear.
If technological surveillance and recording were implemented, it would be impossible for them to opt-in or out of this monitoring. Or, at the very least, to honor such requests would entail significant operational and enforcement challenges.
Contrary to the privacy concerns raised above, there are arguments in favor of electronic monitoring. With sound data collection and predictive analytics, schools may be able to assess a growing risk and act preemptively or at least in real-time.
For example, suppose monitoring measures were in place that could have predicted and thereby prevents one of many recent school shootings we have witnessed in the US. In that case, we may be ethically obligated to do so under this principle. Should saving one or more lives be placed above the masses’ privacy concerns when analyzing whether or not to enact policy?
Relevant risks and benefits must be thoroughly arrayed in documents and procedures used in the informed consent process. The nature, probability, and magnitude of risk should be distinguished with as much clarity as possible.
These formulations are (1) to each person an equal share, (2) to each person according to individual need, (3) to each person according to individual effort, (4) to each person according to societal contribution, and (5) to each person according to merit.
On the one hand, the nature and degree of risk for sexting, mass shooting, or bullying in our young student’s community are valid and present. On the other hand, though, we are not sure about any potential harm that might outweigh the benefits of doing so while posing such actions. For example, sacrificing an individual’s privacy, the psychological pressure to one under electronic monitoring, etc.
Given young students’ dependent status and their frequently compromised capacity for free consent, they should be protected against the danger of being involved in research solely for administrative convenience. The potential harm from over-interpreting and/or over-reacting to a social media post, and any other effect on bringing in electronic monitoring should be carefully evaluated to assess whether the system is genuinely beneficence.
The school board must have an ongoing process to verify that the potential benefits outweigh the potential harms. Potential risks among many to be examined include decreasing trust between the school administration and students, students constantly moving to social media platforms outside the scope of any individual mining program, and wasting valuable and scarce school funds.
When our school and institutions are in positions of authority or commanding influence — especially in choosing to sacrifice student’s privacy — urge electronic monitoring for a risk prevention mechanism which we don’t know how effective it is, seems to be an imprudent decision to make.
Justice is relevant to the selection of subjects of research at two levels: the social and the individual.
Even it is impossible to indicate precisely where justifiable persuasion ends, and undue influence begins. But undue influence would include actions such as manipulating someone’s choice through the controlling influence or threatening to expel or withdrawal individuals from his/her social/academic settings.
It also seems unfair that school digital surveillance uses geofencing to target a specific population with certain socioeconomic/cultural backgrounds (or medical preconditions) that constitute a pool of preferred watch subjects.
The selection of research subjects needs to be scrutinized to determine whether some classes, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, or persons, are being systematically selected and sacrificed for public goods.
For example, a recent WIRED article suggested that these technologies are likely to misfire on black youths over white youths because of the language used online in their communities. Do language barriers reinforce or minimize the inequitable distribution of ‘flagged’ individuals and posts?
We must fully comprehend the first and second-order effects such a policy would have on the various stakeholders.
Taking such a situation to the extreme, suppose digital surveillance monitoring proved efficient in preventing destructive cases. Will, any of the alternate ways get a similar consequence with less negative impact? It is something we all need to be mindful of in making such an arrangement.
At the very least, I will not provide a concrete recommendation on whether the School district should adopt this technology. The hope is that the analysis contained in this memo helps to inform the school administration’s decision.
The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. (1979). The Belmont Report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research.
Simonite, T. (2018). Schools are mining students’ social media posts for signs of trouble.
Leibowitz, A. (2018). Could monitoring students on social media stop the next school shooting? The New York Times.