Digital Privacy A Concern For Schools


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by Michael Bielawski

(This article was written originally for the Hardwick Gazette and will appear in the October 1st issue.)

HARDWICK ― Digital privacy as a topic is often reserved for national and international news, focusing on NSA domestic surveillance or international spying. Largely, thanks to the efforts of Hazen School Board member and lawyer David Kelley, the topic is becoming localized.

“I don’t think anyone’s asked any questions about how electronic surveillance is done,” said Kelley. “We have all kinds of monitoring software now. It’s an issue in particular with schools because it’s a workplace with young students.”

Kelley is author of the article “Taking Terabytes Out of the Constitution: Can We Fight Terrorism Without Big Brother?” which appeared in the spring 2014 edition of the Vermont Bar Journal. An excerpt reads:

“Today, with surveillance searches and data seizures pursuant to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the government can enter homes and businesses through a fiber optic cable and gain access to more persons, houses, papers, and effects than George III could have ever imagined.”

Kelley’s article alludes to the American colonies’ struggle for basic fundamental rights while ruled by the British Empire leading up to the American Revolutionary War in 1776. When the colonies finally won their freedom, these rights eventually became the foundation of the US Constitution. One of those fundamental rights was the right to privacy, as the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment specifically addresses.

The Fourth Amendment reads…

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In particular “probable cause,” in this case for electronic monitoring, was the key language Kelley felt was missing from the Hazen Union policy guidelines when he brought up privacy concerns at the Sept. 15 Hazen School Board meeting. The board motioned to add to its “Administrative Responsibilities Prior to Enforcement Policy” this statement.

“An individual investigation or search will be conducted if school authorities have a reasonable suspicion (essentially “probable cause”) that the search will uncover a violation of law or school district policy.”

Kelley said all schools have a surveillance policy.

“Most schools tell teachers and students they have no reasonable expectation of privacy,“ he said. "Usually they have students and teachers sign an agreement before they take school laptops.”

Hazen Union student Dylan McAllister, serves on the School Board and the state Board of Education.

“There’s a live stream where they can see what’s going on,” he said. “It’s in one of the labs, where they can see all of the computer screens.”

McAllister acknowledged this is a complex issue.

“I think they should have a probable cause, but it gets really murky when you look the different causes…” he said.

He added in his history class there has been discussion on “the whole big brother issue” related to the Edward Snowden NSA revelations.

An extreme example of surveillance abuse, often referred to as “Webcam Gate,” was Robbins vs. Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia, Pa. In 2010, the school paid $610,000 to settle allegations it watched students at their homes through school-issued laptop cameras. It was revealed the district took over 66,000 photos.

A more local incident was at Danville High School involving history teacher David Warren. His emails were read by administration officials and the school determined he used his school email account to order a gun, violating school policy. He was terminated.

During litigation, it was determined other teachers ordered products with the school email, even having packages sent to the school. Warren was awarded arbitration and reinstated as a teacher.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., author of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act and co-sponsor of the 2013 USA Freedom Act, had his spokesman David Carle comment.

“Privacy has largely disappeared since 9/11 as the strong focus on security and safety has crowded out the discussion,” Carle said. “Recently, that has begun to change largely due to the advancement of technology, eroding what has been long assumed our privacy rights.”

Students from Craftsbury and Twinfield also weighed in, including 11th grader Renee Spiese of Craftsbury.

"They can see all the school emails and every website we’ve been on,” she said. “If I’ve been on an inappropriate site they can tell.”

Spiese indicated there may not be enough time spent on the US Constitution at Craftsbury Schools.

"They did teach the Constitution in middle school… I missed that day.”

She commented on if electronic monitoring is appropriate in schools.

“The government does it all the time, why can’t schools do it?”

Two students from Twinfield, Bridget Couture and Samantha Lege, also called the Gazette.

“I would say the school has the right to look at emails for teachers or students if they violate a law or policy,” said Couture. “But they should stay outside of social media if it doesn’t involve the school because it’s more of a private thing.”

Lege said students did study the U.S. Constitution in her school.

“You have to have probable cause to get into people’s business,“ she said. "I think one of the main reasons might be cyber bullying when other people’s feelings could be hurt, or anything having to do with putting kids at risk of violence.”

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