Do You Know What Data Is Being Collected On Your Student?

Photo credit: Nick Youngson (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Toward the end of the school year in May, a sophomore at Sharpsburg, Georgia’s Northgate High School (in the Coweta County School System) texted her mother to find out her blood type. She said she needed the information for an assignment in her American literature class. Wondering how students’ blood types could possibly be relevant to American literature, the mom investigated and uncovered an appalling invasion of privacy and possible violation of federal student-privacy law.

What she discovered should be a warning to all parents of school-age children: Monitor everything that goes on in the classroom.

The Northgate teacher had required students to fill out a “dossier” of personal information, including height, weight (“DON’T LIE,” she warned), distinguishing features (“tattoos, scars, gold crowns/caps, particular speech/mannerism, or walking traits”), blood type, hair type or texture, and handwriting sample. Each student was also told to imprint a fingerprint on a piece of tape, and to supply a photo and a hair sample (for DNA analysis). When some students objected to providing this personal information, the teacher responded, “It’s supposed to be fun,” and warned that failure to complete the dossier would result in a lower grade.

If this weren’t bad enough, the teacher then posted the dossiers on the classroom wall – in full view of all students and visitors. 

Shocked and perplexed, the investigative mom contacted the principal. It took two emails, but he finally responded with a bare statement that her daughter’s information would be returned to her. No apology, no acknowledgement of impropriety, no information about how this happened.

Not until local school board member Linda Menk contacted the district superintendent did the mom receive any explanation of this bizarre assignment. In response to several direct questions, the principal said the teacher acted on her own in assigning the dossier, that no one else in the department participated, and that it was intended to introduce STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) content – as part of forensic science — in conjunction with (already completed) study of the book Twelve Angry Men. 

How could such a dossier help students understand an utterly unrelated book? And why was an English teacher wasting time with STEM? No explanation of that. The principal also claimed all the dossiers were collected and destroyed, even though at least two students were known to have taken theirs home.

Dissatisfied with this explanation, Northgate parents and Menk contacted public-interest law firm Liberty Counsel. The lawyer there analyzed the facts and wrote to the district superintendent to lay out the multiple federal violations involved in the dossier assignment. The Coweta County School System’s lawyer denied the assignment violated federal law but agreed, in an understatement, that it isn’t “best practice” to gather such personal information. He claimed all the dossiers that could be recovered had been shredded.

The inappropriateness of this assignment should have been glaringly obvious to any teacher. Not only did it shatter the privacy boundaries of students, but it had no connection to the subject supposedly being taught. 

But this is where our students find themselves. Little by little, they are acclimated to losing any expectation of privacy – for their own good, of course.

In the name of “personalized” and “social-emotional” learning, students are required to interact with sophisticated software that vacuums up enormous amounts of data about not only their knowledge, but their mindsets and attitudes. Some of this software comes in the form of video games, which gather sensitive data while heightening the propensity toward addiction. (In Georgia, even the youngest schoolchildren are put on video games as a means of “assessment.”) Digital software uses the data to create algorithms that predict a child’s future behavior, capabilities, or accomplishment based on analyzing his keystrokes. The federal government even touts software that observes students’ physiological reactions to a lesson and feeds that data into the algorithms. Some schools are buying apps that allow constant surveillance and sharing of information about students’ emotional states. And there is little or no control over what technology vendors do with this data, or to whom they might sell it.

In this atmosphere, privacy is downgraded in the name of developing the “whole child.” Is it any wonder that a particularly obtuse teacher might fail to see the harm in asking probing personal questions and posting the answers on the wall?

This strange episode at Northgate demonstrates that parents must be ever vigilant about what’s happening in their children’s classrooms. The days when students’ personal information was off-limits to prying eyes – and when American literature meant American literature — are over. Can the same be said of common sense?

2 thoughts on “Do You Know What Data Is Being Collected On Your Student?

  1. English teachers often believe that they have a unique responsibility to groom the ethical and political lives of their students.

  2. Thank you, Linda Menk, for standing up, exposing this illegal activity, fighting for Liberty and protecting our children.

    Linda Menk is the only board member who will ask questions, diligently research facts and seek the truth.

    For this, she is slandered, ridiculed and excluded by every other sitting board member of the Coweta County School Board.

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