Sep 14, 2021 - News
Behind Minneapolis Public Schools' surveillance program
A chart showing the different types of content Gaggle flags
Data: Minneapolis Public Schools. Illustration courtesy of The 74

A surveillance program that Minneapolis Public Schools set up when the pandemic hit is sticking around this fall, even as students are back in classrooms. And some are concerned about it.

Driving the news: Axios Twin Cities education news partner The 74 dug into 1,300 records tied to MPS' use of Gaggle, which monitors students' computers, through artificial intelligence, and alerts district officials when they might be suicidal, violent or watching pornography.

Background: MPS first signed a contract with the Dallas-based surveillance company when schools closed in March 2020 — bypassing normal procurement policies, The 74 reports. The district's current agreement goes into 2023.

  • Backers say the software is helping save lives, but critics say it's an invasion of kids' privacy.

How it works: School officials get alert emails — within 17 minutes, on average — when Gaggle detects certain content, often in Google Hangouts, word documents or emails tied to a student's school accounts.

MPS security chief Jason Matlock called Gaggle a lifesaver — literally.

  • He told The 74 that Gaggle flagged a student's suicide note in the middle of the night. Matlock quickly warned the parents, who knew their child was struggling but didn't fully recognize how bad things had become.
  • "If it saved one kid, if it supported one caregiver, if it supported one family, I’ll take it," he said. "That's the bottom line."

Yes, but: Only about a quarter of incidents were reported to district officials on school days between 8am and 4pm, showing "how the service extends schools' authority far beyond their traditional powers to regulate student speech and behavior, including at home," The 74 writes.

What they're saying: Some experts say the surveillance will backfire.

  • Using surveillance to identify children in distress could exacerbate feelings of stigma and shame and could ultimately make students less likely to ask for help, Jennifer Mathis, the director of policy and legal advocacy at The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, told The 74.
  • "Most kids in that situation are not going to share anything anymore and are going to suffer for that," she said. "It suggests that anything you write or say or do in school — or out of school — may be found and held against you and used in ways that you had not envisioned."

Zoom out: Minneapolis is not alone. Gaggle and similar surveillance companies monitor tens of millions of students across the country.

Go deeper with the full report from The 74.

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