Anti-Semitism on Campus – and the Student Privacy Response
In recent weeks, a few anti-Semitic incidents on high school and college campuses have intersected with (actual or perceived) legal requirements and school practices around student privacy in ways that have raised some concerns about how privacy interests are being balanced with community safety and teacher autonomy.
At Stoughton High School in Massachusetts, a teacher was “suspended after she revoked a letter of recommendation she wrote for a student [for that student’s college applications] and then explained the reason why. The student created a swastika out of tape and propped it up against a recycling bin. When a Jewish girl at the school noticed the swastika and asked the other student to remove it, he did so and then used a slur.” Two other teachers were also sanctioned “for talking to the student about what was wrong with putting up a swastika and talking about it in class.” Some members of the school community have voiced concerns about the speed and tenor of the school district’s response to the swastika, saying that, although they “understand the privacy [interests] of the people involved . . . the district needed to deal with a symbol of hate right away so it [wouldn’t] happen again.” (On a related note: juvenile courts are also wrestling with how to respond to teenagers who are charged with delinquency offenses for anti-Semitic or racist graffiti; The New York Times recently reported on two teens who were court-ordered to do monthly book reports on books dealing with “some of history’s most divisive and tragic periods” as a result of committing this offense.)
At Central Michigan University (CMU), a woman allegedly handed out an anti-Semitic Valentine at a College Republicans’ club meeting. In response to community outcry and requests for further information, “University officials have said the woman was not a CMU student at the time and has since left Mount Pleasant, but they've remained tight-lipped about the woman's history at CMU and her relationship with the College Republicans, citing fear of violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.” However, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center sees the FERPA concern as pretextual; Frank LaMonte explains: "‘it's an almost daily occurrence that a school or college gives FERPA as an excuse . . . [e]ither they don't understand the law or they do understand it and are using it to obstruct public disclosure.’"
These campus incidents are taking place against a national backdrop of increased anti-Semitism in 2017; since January, according to the “JCC [Jewish Community Center] Association of North America . . . 54 Jewish community centers have faced 69 threats, including three waves of bomb threats.” On February 21, President Trump condemned this trend after “previously fail[ing] to clearly address the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the US last week when he was pressed on the issue during two news conferences.”
Schools are also wrestling with how to handle the student privacy and other dimensions of hate speech incidents that occur in the digital sphere. For example, a student at Grapevine High School in Dallas, Texas, is facing disciplinary action for including “‘racially-insensitive’” terminology in a group chat; school officials cited “student privacy laws” as a basis for not providing a confirmation or denial of the comments or information about the student’s punishment. And in the digital sphere more broadly, an open question remains about whether social media and tech companies might be able to develop more potential tech-based interventions to address online hate speech; as a Forbes contributor recently mused, “[i]f platforms like Facebook and Twitter determined that hate speech was a threat to their future growth and success and made a high level executive decision to devote all necessary resources to combat it, one could imagine they could quite quickly eradicate a great deal of it from their platforms.”
Happenings. Lawmakers in Colorado discussed a bill in the Senate Education Committee aimed at protecting student privacy vis-a-vis citizenship and religion by eliminating those topics on the SAT and PSAT tests, which are now used for some assessments in that state’s primary and secondary schools. An article by Gennie Gebhart for the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog explores the important role that student librarians play in terms of crafting the level of their students’ interactions with technology and navigating the grey areas that this creates in terms of their privacy. Gebhart writes: “As ed tech use increases, school librarians … have an opportunity to show that there is no need to compromise privacy for newer or more high-tech educational resources.” Last week, the Trump administration removed all open government data sets, much to the dismay of government accountability and transparency advocates like the Sunlight Foundation. This move also raises alarm for other stakeholders; as a piece in The Hill notes, “[t]he private sector will be unable to rely on government data if federal agencies can make arbitrary and capricious decisions about when to publish datasets.” Western Kentucky University (WKU) intends to sue its own student newspaper, the College Heights Herald, for making a request for information about how the University handles sexual misconduct investigations. The Attorney General of Kentucky has already determined that WKU violated state open records laws by denying the newspaper’s request, but WKU says litigation against the student newspaper is nonetheless necessary because of the school’s “obligation to protect educational records and privacy rights.”
Trump Administration Immigration Memos Spark Confusion and Fears as Data Privacy and Personal Safety Boundaries Become Increasingly Unclear
New immigration memos released by the Trump administration this week are causing confusion over student privacy and schools’ obligations to comply with information requests from federal immigration officials. WGN Chicago reports that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) sent a memo to principals providing initial guidance for protecting students’ privacy and safety. Acknowledging requests for information and assistance received from students and their families, CPS reminded faculty that ICE is not permitted access to CPS facilities or personnel unless they have a criminal warrant. CPS is also providing lists of resources in multiple languages for families in their district.
A few instances of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) picking up parents and family members while they are taking their children to school have been reported in multiple states. The Washington Post reports that seemingly random arrests by ICE agents occurring around schools is sowing fear among immigrant families. In one case, a father of three children was mistakenly arrested in place of his brother-in-law. Groups working with children in Connecticut report that some mixed-status families are keeping children home from school out of fears of deportation.
There are potential tensions with Trump administration’s new immigration policies and the Supreme Court ruling in Plyler vs. Doe (1982), which most likely restricts the collection of children’s immigration status when verifying their residency for the purpose of school attendance. The federal Constitution gives undocumented children a right to attend public school, and this right could be chilled by collecting immigration data upon enrollment. Chalkbeat reports that the Denver school district passed an immigration resolution promising to:
“Continue its practice of not collecting or maintaining any information about students’ immigration status.
To contact the district’s general counsel immediately about any request by a federal immigration official to talk to a student while in school or in any school activity or using district transportation.
Surveillance and School Discipline
In the news this week were discussions of body-worn cameras and policing in schools to improve student safety, juxtaposed with increasing evidence that students of color are disproportionately subject to disciplinary action. The Miami-Dade school board unanimously approved a feasibility study to consider police-worn body cameras in schools. One school board member defended the decision, saying: “‘It would strengthen school police accountability and provide a valuable new type of evidence for them.’” Lolo Okolosie argues that smaller class sizes would achieve a stronger result in supporting improved student behaviors. Last week on Twitter, UC Davis Law Professor Elizabeth Joh asked “how does an accountability tool turn into a surveillance one?” and included a list of key questions related to student data and privacy, e.g., when is the camera turned on/off, what happens to the data, what happens if the police do not turn off the cameras?
An NBC News analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights shows that black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined, suspended, and arrested. The NBC News report raised further concerns about the presence of police in schools as providing inappropriately severe disciplinary responses to students. EdWeek’s recent “Policing America’s Schools” analysis finds that across states, black students were disproportionately subject to disciplinary action, particularly arrests. An NPR analysis of this data finds that some states have “codified tougher penalties for being disruptive in class, which may lead to higher arrest rates for students doing things that, in many places, would not justify a call to 9-1-1.”
Happenings. Without citing an evidentiary basis for its decision, the Trump administration has “rescind[ed] anti-discriminatory protections for transgender students,” revoking requirements for gender neutral bathrooms in schools. This decision coincides with an upcoming United States Supreme Court hearing in the case of Gavin Grimm, a Virginia transgender student who was not allowed access to the boys’ bathroom and was instead told to use the janitor closet.
As of February 22, many pages taken down from the whitehouse.gov site in the wake of Trump’s inauguration have not been replaced, including pages addressing disability-based discrimination, access, and federal policies. Melissa Blake, in an op-ed for the New York Times, shares her experience of finding that the pages on disabilities had been removed and her fears and deep concerns about Trump’s rhetoric and treatment of people with disabilities. Quartz coverage of the missing website pages ends with an open question of whether the pieces that remain missing are reflective of the new administration’s priorities or simply a matter of getting up to speed.
Scott Shackelford, Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics at Indiana University asks whether cybersecurity should be a human right, citing Vinton Cerf’s belief that technology itself should not be a right, but a platform through which rights can be exercised. New research reported in Nature opens possibility for diagnosing children as young as a year old for autism. This article explores the consequences of mobile-only access for low-income students. In an analysis of 2014-2015 pre-K enrollment data from New York City schools, Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation, finds that despite school choice offerings, families often have access to limited data to inform those choices. Potter recommends “creating family resource centers and improving families’ access to information about all of their school options” to make “choice-based school enrollment more equitable.” On February 27, New America's Education Policy program will host a conversation with Tressie McMillan Cottom and other leading experts about her new book, Lower Ed, which examines the benefits, pitfalls, and real costs of a for-profit education. In her new book, Student Lives in Crisis: Deepening Inequality in Times of Austerity, Lorenza Antonucci finds that college students are facing increasing stress in taking on more debt to fund their education. She further finds that socio-economic class and location they’re from impacts students’ college experiences. The American Psychological Association released a report Stress in America: Coping with Change, finding a dramatic shift: in August 2016, Americans reported the lowest stress levels in ten years, yet the same survey in January 2017 found these levels rising, with particular concerns for personal safety and terrorism.
Snapshot: Digital Literacy Legislation
Across the country, state legislatures are engaging the questions of whether, why, and how to require or promote digital literacy or related instructions in their public schools. Here’s a peek at one such legislative initiative: on February 8, 2017, a lawmaker in West Virginia proposed House Bill 2199 on “creating a digital learning pilot program” for the 2017-2018 school year that would “demonstrate a digital learning model throughout a diverse geographic area and result in measurable performance improvements for students no matter their socio-economic status or where they reside.” The bill explains that the pilot is needed in part because “Millennials use technology constantly but they have not developed the digital literacy skills [including problem-solving] that will help them in a future career.” A key component of the pilot would be digital literacy skills assessment of both teachers and students, using a “well-recognized and respected standard for the measurement of digital literacy.” The bill notes that the pilot “may require a partnership with a third-party” with expertise in this type of evaluation as well as digital literacy curricular development. The bill is currently before the House Education Committee. This was also introduced in the 2016 legislative session but did not become law.
Happenings. Lee Rainie and Janna Anderson of Pew Research published a must-read overview of algorithms, how they function, the trade-offs they embody, and their implications for everyday life. The article includes a treasure trove of useful links covering everything from fake news in Facebook feeds to racist Twitter auto-responses to worrying future trends. Medical students are increasingly using virtual reality in their training. Students at University of Illinois-Chicago “use an Oculus Rift system and VR software from Embodied Labs to immerse themselves in the experience of an elderly man named Alfred.” Ed Surge covers concerns by some in the digital learning community that new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may not continue support for the U.S. Department of Education’s “Office of Educational Technology (OET). Under the Obama administration, this [busy] office spearheaded efforts around increasing broadband access for schools and libraries, expanding the use of open educational resources through the #GoOpen campaign, and improving teacher preparation programs.” On the other hand, Ryan Craig, reporting for TechCrunch argues that DeVos’ support for charter schools could translate into advances in ed tech, citing AltSchools as a positive example (AltSchools does seem to be an exception rather than norm for innovative use of ed tech in charter schools, although some other charters are certainly engaging ed tech as well). In a recent Oxford University Press blog post, Professors Charles M. Wynn and Arthur W. Wiggins warn that pseudoscience leads to the “dulling of critical thinking skills. Pseudoscientific ideas are generally personal or anecdotal as opposed to scientific concepts that require abundant replicated physical evidence for support. The internet provides a great example of the blurring of the distinction between science and pseudoscience.” And now for some “brick & mortar” literacy & equity news: starting in fall 2017, Michigan State University is banning whiteboards from the doors of undergraduate dorm rooms due to racist graffiti recently written on one of the boards. An administrator explains that: “‘Whiteboards have been decreasing in popularity since the rise of social media and texting and cell phones and all of those things.’"