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Flagler School District Enters Brave New World of Student Computer Controls and Surveillance

| August 15, 2017

Ryan Deising, the Flagler school district's IT director, speaking to the school board this afternoon with Benjamin Osypian, principal at Old Kings Elementary, about various aspects of the district's technology initiatives. (© FlaglerLive)

Ryan Deising, the Flagler school district’s IT director, speaking to the school board this afternoon with Benjamin Osypian, principal at Old Kings Elementary, about various aspects of the district’s technology initiatives. (© FlaglerLive)

The ability of teachers and parents to control and monitor what students are doing on their school district-issued computers is about to take a giant leap into the world of surveillance and control in Flagler County schools, down to flagging terms or behavior that could signal self-harm or bullying, monitor email or other online communications, locking up browsers on a site of a teacher’s choosing, preventing computer usage outside certain hours, and giving parents immediate access to children’s detailed usage reports until now available only by request through the district’s bureaucracy.

All high school and middle school students in Flagler schools are provided with a district-issued computer that they may take home during the school year. That’s had its benefits and drawbacks. The district sees the new approach as a means of giving teachers and parents more sense of control over devices that savvy students are able to turn to their personal uses despite various controls that, until now, could not effectively prevent them from circumventing them. The new approach is also a reflection of technology’s evolution as a tool equally powerful to broaden a student’s capabilities, academic or otherwise, as to control them, depending on the motive in play.

With one system, called Mosyle, already in teachers’ hands (and pronounced phonetically just like Mosul, the Iraqi city so often in the news recently), teachers will be able to know at all times through their own computer what sites the students in their classrooms are on, ensure that they do not stray from given sites or apps they’re working on or with during class time—disabling a student’s ability to surf elsewhere—and keep track of what their students did during class time even if they were not locked in. The same controls will be available to parents at home, or when the computer is off campus.

With another system, called Securly, not yet rolled out—but likely to be so by January, and sooner for some 200 to 300 parents—both the district and parents will be able to monitor all usage on the district-issued computer almost in real time or within hours of use, audit email and other communications and, for parents, control what applications are used off campus, when, and to what extent, down to scheduling the device’s usability between certain hours. For example, parents will be able to program the device to shut down at a certain time and be operable only at a time they set. They’ll also be able to subscribe to regular email reports of their child’s web usage, down to a list of sits visited.

“High school students are going to go ballistic,” School Board member Colleen Conklin said.

Both applications are readily available on the market—Mosyle to schools, Securly to individuals, companies or schools—and presented as a convenient way to focus learning, securely. Neither will substantially increase the cost to the district, in comparison with the less subtle or malleable filtering and monitoring system in place now. Mosyl will cost $60,000 a year, or $20,000 less than its comparable and current system now in place. Securly will cost $28,000 to $30,000 a year, once it’s fully rolled out, though for now it’s free as the district tries it out.

“High school students are going to go ballistic.”

More controversially, as that delves into going beyond merely monitoring content, the Flagler district with Securly will have the ability to do what it calls “behavioral profiling” by analyzing data generated by a user and flagging behavior that may point to suicidal thoughts or other harmful acts. That data, said Ryan Deising, the district’s IT director, is intended only to be turned over to counselors at a school. But when asked if the data would also be turned over to law enforcement, for example, Deising said it would have to be if the proper channels were followed, starting with the board attorney—presumably through warrants, subpoenas and the like, though the data itself would only be kept by the district for a limited span of time.

While Securly potentially offers the ability to scale up its behavioral profiling beyond suicidal or bullying red flags, “we have no intention of changing what the company has in place for identifying and flagging,” Deising said. “It is developed so that if there are patterns that show self-harm, those types of things, that’s what we’re going to be working off of. Any type of piece that’s flagged through the system is actually going to one of our counselors. It’s not going to our discipline piece, it’s going to our mental health counselors and then they will help make a determination of what was the best appropriate path from there.”

The systems also enhance and constantly update filters that have been in place for several years.

Deising presented the new wave of what the district is calling its new “digital safeguards for students” at a workshop Tuesday afternoon, eliciting mostly praise and few concerns from school board members.

“We’re responding to concerns from parents, from our staff. One of the biggest things about lack of participation in our take-home program,” Deising said of the district’s initiative that makes a laptop available for every student in middle and high school to take home, “parents felt they had little to no control over what their student could do when they went home. We had folks that would ask, well, can I buy content filter and when they’re not at home can I implement it, because I want my kid to be able to do X, Y and Z. Or, I don’t want my kid to do X, Y and Z.”

There was no system in place before to accommodate such requests. Now it does. “It gives some power back to the parent to control that device,” Deising said. Some 50 to 60 students at Matanzas and 100 to 120 at Flagler Palm Coast High School were not participating in the take-home program last year, though they could still have access to computers at their school. Deising would also hear from parents concerned about having any district device under their roof.

The system won’t be available to parents right away. Deising is hoping to recruit 200 to 300 parents as a pilot group this fall. “This is so new and I think I’m very curious to see the parent input in too, and the level of interest that they have,” Superintendent James Tager said, reserving more precise judgment. “I don’t know if you could ever totally control everything and I don’t know that that’s our business but I think whatever we can do to provide a safe environment for students is what we should do,” he said. The system also gives teachers more freedom to teach and focus students on lessons. “I don’t know if you could ever get ahead of this issue because everybody is so computer savvy,” Tager said, acknowledging  that “that Big Brother factor is always going to be there.”

School board members took in the presentation and commented here and there, largely to share their approval, but the policy implications of the new systems were not discussed, as the systems are seen as more updated applications of an approach already in place, if less effectively and one-sidedly so: many times parents ask the district for reports on their children’s computer usage, but those reports may take time to generate and, sometimes, are not available since the information is stored only temporarily. “This gives parents a window into what’s happening with their students,” Deising said, more immediately than what the district could provide.

 “This first year is kind of a learning situation for everyone, and we’ll see how it actually plays out,” the superintendent said.  

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54 Responses for “Flagler School District Enters Brave New World of Student Computer Controls and Surveillance”

  1. This is great. Since these computers are at the cost of the taxpayers, the county should be able to see everything and block anything they deem appropriate.

    • Nancy Nally says:

      Great so then you agree that we should also be able to get reports on any computers and cellphones that are owned by the school district and county and issued to teachers, administrators, Sheriffs, etc so we can see what they are doing with those devices and when and lock them out of anything that is “inappropriate”? I mean, they are paid for by taxpayers after all.

    • Nikki Graves says:

      Nancy Nally, you are making a comparison of children to adults. CIPA clearly states that schools must monitor the children in order to receive e – rate funding.
      So, if there is room for improvement (trust me there always is) then we should support the efforts of the individuals involved to keep children safer in a global society.

      Edit: and yes, government employees have restrictions on their computers as well. Also The Florida Supreme Court interprets this definition to encompass all materials made or received by an agency in connection with official business which are used to perpetuate, communicate or formalize knowledge. All of these materials, regardless of form, are open for public inspection unless the legislature has specifically exempted them from disclosure. One Florida court has held that “information stored in a computer is as much a public record as a written page in a book or a tabulation in a file stored in a filing cabinet.” So yes, adults can be audited as well.

    • Lori Young says:

      The computers come from a grant from Apple, nothing to do with tax payers.

      • FlaglerLive says:

        The commenter is not accurate. While Apple did provide some limited grants in the past, technology in Flagler schools, including the purchases of laptops and iPads, is paid for through revenue from the half-cent sales tax supplement voters renewed in 2012, for 10 years. It was first approved in 2002. The tax generates more than $4 million a year, about a quarter or so of which goes to buying devices. You can see the full current five-year budget plan for that revenue here.

    • Nikki Graves says:

      Sorry, we lease computers / ipads even if we do at a discount. In fact they (school board) were voting on one of these budgets today

    • Jon Putney says:

      Nancy Nally let them buy their own laptops and they won’t have to worry about it.

    • Sooo …. a grant or wherever they get it, it doesn’t really matter so who really cares. The students don’t own the property, therefore they should not have free reign to do whatever they want. Most stuff should be blocked on there anyway. These machines are for educational purposes, not to stalk Facebook and watch YouTube all day. And yes, all government property should be open to investigation and surveillance as necessary.

    • I agree it should be regulated. Last year alone 2 of my children were bullied while using apps through the schools computers. It took me digging through the damn thing to find out students were yelling my daughter ” we wish someone would rape you and that you would die from aids.” I personally don’t like the idea of the computers but the schools don’t really give u a choice. I took my daughter’s laptop away and told her teacher have fun grading her papers as she will be handing them to you in the for of paper. Teacher went behind mny back and gave her a laptop to use at school. These computers have been nothing but a pain.

    • Nancy Nally says:

      Nikki, “children” were never mentioned as a justification in Jason’s post – only taxpayer dollars were. Also, a lot of our seniors are over 18 years old…so they aren’t children.

    • Nikki Graves I think she meant high school seniors. :) On a side note, I think this new step is amazing, and you and your husband pierced the veil on this one. I think you helped influence this step, and for that, thank you and good job!! :) :)

  2. Linda Rosas says:

    Too much. HS kids will figure it out quickly.

  3. I sure hope this works. The computer world is out of control especially when the school gives them one.

  4. Can anyone explain why there is a 14 year old 5th grader in one of our elementary schools. And why teachers are told to pass F students on to the next grade ?

  5. Cait Hutsell says:

    They will get used to it quickly.

  6. Tammy Lynn says:

    These kids don’t need Ipads and laptops. They need a pencil and paper. These kids don’t even know how to sign their name. And teachers complaining they can’t read the children’s handwriting. It is ridiculous.

  7. I am one of those parents who is more than willing to participate. Bring it on, I am sick of fighting over school issued computer’s.

  8. Bravo!!!! It’s about time. These kids are out of control with all these devices, including mine! A huge distraction in class for sure.

  9. I’ll take part in this test group of parents.

  10. Dave Ross says:

    Good, let them go ballistic.

  11. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I was the mean mom. The parent that made my child a paper only student last year due to issues with these computers. I could control him having the computer at home but I had absolutely no control over him fooling around online in school instead of doing school work. I threatened him with it and I did it.

  12. The students are at school to learn. I don’t have a problem with a the computer being monitored to help my child stay focused on the school work.

  13. matanzas freshman says:

    I think this is dumb . Honestly. Worry about stuff more important otherwise don’t issue a computer to begin with.

  14. Who cares what the kids think? This is a fantastic idea!

  15. Jeff Baumann says:

    I thought they stop teaching fairy tales in kindergarten.

  16. Liz Haville says:

    This is great.. maybe the kids will Pay attention in class and get some work done in class and at home.

  17. This is awesome…parents should be able to prevent their kids from doing any social networking on school computers…..

  18. They finally took the advice of the parents that have gone to practically every school board meeting for the past few months. It’s sad that it took this long to implement such a program and to have children’s lives already affected due to their lack of control. Thank you Nikki and Chance!!

  19. Would they go ballistic when they have a job and a the company they work for monitors all of the same things.

  20. Focused and goal oriented students use their electronic devices as a wonderful tool. It is the small percentage of students who don’t want to learn. They don’t realize the value of a good education and are distracted by their electronic devices. This new system will be great for the later students.

  21. Florida voter says:

    Thank you Flagler Public Schools. As a parent of a teen, I already use similar software on my desktop at home, so it’ll be great to have that functionality on the school-provided laptop. Will we have training? “How-to” guides? Webinars letting us know what’s available? I hope so. Tools only work if the people who should be using them know how to use them.

    Also, the start of this article seems to compare the severity of Orwellian email monitoring with lockdown browsers. There is no comparison. The first, whether you favor it or oppose it, is a blanket examination of everything the student writes in his communications. The second prevents a student from accessing cheat sites when taking an online exam. The comparison between limiting access and logging all usage is similar.

    Limiting hours of access, blocking some websites, using lockdown browsers? Yes, please.

    Letting Big Brother see everything that is written, every program used, every webpage visited? That’s treading dangerous waters. As a parent, I’d like to know what happens to the data? How does the monitoring company use the data? Where is the data kept? How long is it there? What metadata is kept for how long? Does that metadata allow fingerprinting? I don’t want my child to get fired from a job for something he googled when he was 15.

  22. Sandra Judy says:

    These are computers purchased by the taxpayer. It is the responsibility of the school system to control how they are used. They should be used for school work only, not for personal use.

  23. Markingthedays says:

    Talk about first world problems. Booohoooo the school district wants to tell me what my child can do on the $2000 macbook he / she received at no cost to me!!!

  24. Finally they are coming to their senses. This should of been happening from day 1.

  25. George says:

    Honestly, it’s free technology that you would otherwise have to pay for yourself. Don’t be surfing porn, going to other inappropriate websites or doing otherwise illegal things online and you won’t have to worry about it. School issued computers are available to aid student achievement, they aren’t there for your leisure.

  26. another vet says:

    what a brave new world todays kid lives in

  27. Mark says:

    Bravo! Little Johnny should be controlled as to what the school’s computers do and don’t do. They are the school districts computers on loan to the student after all. Good job Ryan!

  28. Anonymous says:

    This is ridiculous. Students can’t even go on inappropriate sites on their computers to begin with. Not only is this an invasion of privacy but it’s also a waste of money

  29. George says:

    “This is ridiculous. Students can’t even go on inappropriate sites on their computers to begin with. Not only is this an invasion of privacy but it’s also a waste of money”

    Yes, students CAN go on inappropriate websites. Many websites are outright banned by name, some are filtered out by text/keyword searches…the problem is there are literally over 1 BILLION websites on the internet, far too many to physically stop a student from visiting. The only way to truly make sure that students are behaving and are safe, is to use this kind of software to monitor their actions. The keyword here is safe though, if one student is kept safe because their search results were reviewed by a school psychologist this software has paid for itself a thousandfold.

  30. Sylvia says:

    Absolutely agree with you George! It’s a reflection of our current state in this country. So glad I don’t live in Flagler County any more.

  31. Aves says:

    I’m a FPCHS graduate from 2007. I was figuring out my sexual orientation and gender issues during HS. Research I was able to clandestinely do on school computers helped me discover the term ‘transgender’ and understand that it applied to me. I couldn’t have done that at home. I knew other kids whose parents would have beaten them or kicked them out for being gay.

    Now with snooping tech like this installed, kids who don’t understand how invasive it is or how to circumvent it may also google things, trying to figure themselves out. They may also get caught by their parents or counselors thanks to this report. And I don’t expect a modicum of sensitivity from any figures in authority for struggling LGBT students whose searches to find out who they are get them flagged and sent to counselors and teachers. That was never my experience as a student.

    I will never forget being bullied by email by classmates. I will never forget bringing this to FPCHS guidance counselors. I will also never forget a guidance counselor telling me _to my face_ that if I wanted the bullying to stop, I could “try not being a faggot”. Those are inappropriate and insensitive words by a school guidance counselor who was supposed to be protecting _me_ from bullies.

    She’s fired now, but it’s disgusting anyone could look at a teen trying to kill himself over classmate bullying and tell them they need Jesus and to not be gay, instead of getting the classmates telling _him_ to hang himself to stop.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Take the computers away and teach them how to read and write! Kids get enough computer time with their friends and at home. Too much policing by three schools….spend that time educating.

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