Minneapolis schools to halt controversial student surveillance initiative

Citing budget cuts, district says it will soon end its relationship with Gaggle, a digital tool that monitored students’ online behaviors during COVID

By: - June 29, 2022 6:00 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

The Minneapolis school district has announced plans to end its relationship with Gaggle, a controversial digital surveillance tool that monitored students’ online behaviors during pandemic-induced remote learning.

The announcement, which follows extensive reporting by The 74 about how the tool subjected the city’s youth to pervasive round-the-clock digital surveillance, was outlined last week at the bottom of a newsletter alerting families to changes at the district. Gaggle, which uses artificial intelligence and human content moderators to track students’ online activities and notify district officials of “inappropriate behaviors or potential threats to self or others,” will no longer be used beginning on July 1, the district announced.

A week after schools went remote in Minneapolis and nationally in March 2020, the district sidestepped typical procurement rules and used federal pandemic relief money to contract with Gaggle, a for-profit company that reported significant business growth when classes went online. The district has spent more than $355,000 on the tool, which monitors student behaviors on school-issued Google and Microsoft accounts, and has a contract with the company through September 2023.

District officials said the tool saved lives but civil rights advocates and students targeted by the program have questioned its efficacy and accused the company of violating students’ privacy rights.

In an email, district spokesperson Julie Schultz Brown attributed the change to steep budget cuts “made in order to honor the terms of our new contract” with educators. Gaggle founder and CEO Jeff Patterson said the Minneapolis district will stop using the tool at a moment when “students across the United States are suffering.” In June, the company alerted Minneapolis officials to 15 “critical incidents” related to suicide, death threats, violence and drug use, Patterson wrote in a statement. Nationally, the pandemic has led to a surge in youth mental health issues and behavioral challenges.

recent report by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey warned that Gaggle and similar services could surveil students inappropriately, compound racial disparities in school discipline and waste tax dollars. Gaggle claims it saved some 1,400 student lives during the 2020-21 school year, yet independent research on the tool’s effectiveness doesn’t exist.

Minneapolis student Teeth Logsdon-Wallace poses with his dog Gilly. Photo courtesy Alexis Logsdon.

Teeth Logsdon-Wallace, a rising freshman in Minneapolis, saw the district’s decision to cut ties with Gaggle as a major victory. He became an outspoken Gaggle critic after a homework assignment, which discussed a previous suicide attempt and how he learned important coping skills, got flagged by the tool’s surveillance dragnet. Officials at Gaggle and the district said the tool helps identify students who are struggling emotionally and need adult intervention. But 14-year-old Logsdon-Wallace and other critics argue that digital surveillance is an inappropriate way to pinpoint students who need mental health care. Rather than helping, he said the experience “felt violating and gross.”

“When you’re spying on kids and their stuff, especially about mental health stuff, they’re just going to be more secretive about it,” he said. “That can just cause more danger.”

While Gaggle relies on technology to ferret out students with issues like depression, Logsdon-Wallace said that he and other students are more likely to share their mental health struggles with adults at school if there’s a culture of trust. Monitoring communications through an algorithm and a team of low-paid remote workers who the students don’t even know, he said, had the opposite effect and left students more apprehensive about district computers, “which could be positive and negative.”

While his peers learned how to better protect their own privacy online “even when it’s inherently being violated,” he said, he worried that some may have been “bottling up mental health issues because of it.”

The district will no longer use Gaggle’s student activity monitoring tool or the company’s anonymous tip line, SpeakUp for Safety, which allows students to report potential safety threats confidentially. Instead of turning to SpeakUp, concerned parents and students should report issues to police officials with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the district wrote in its newsletter.

District officials have said the anonymous tip line was central to its decision to contract with Gaggle, yet previous reporting by The 74 found that the service was rarely used. Meanwhile, the digital surveillance tool routinely flagged students who made references to sex, drugs and violence on district technology. An analysis of nearly 1,300 alerts found the service flagged Minneapolis students for discussing violent impulses, eating disorders, abuse at home and suicidal plans.

But Gaggle regularly flagged benign student chatter and personal files, including classroom assignments, casual conversations between teens and sensitive journal entries. Gaggle flags students who use keywords related to sexual orientation including “gay” and “lesbian,” and on at least one occasion school officials in Minneapolis outed an LGBT student to their parents. The sheer volume of student communications that got flagged by Gaggle was at times overwhelming, the Minneapolis school district’s head of security acknowledged, but he also felt like he was able to save students from dying by suicide.

In interviews with The 74, former content moderators at Gaggle — hundreds of whom are paid just $10 an hour on month-to-month contracts — raised serious questions about the company’s efficacy, its employment practices and its effect on students’ civil rights.

Moderators said they received little training before they were given access to students’ sensitive materials and were pressured to prioritize speed over quality. They also reported insufficient safeguards to protect students’ sensitive files, including nude selfies. Patterson acknowledged that moderators, who work remotely with little supervision or oversight, could easily save copies of students’ nude photographs and share them on the dark web.

As a transgender teenager who believes the school district has done too little to address bullying, Logsdon-Wallace said he already had little trust in district leaders. While Gaggle didn’t address the abuse from peers, having his sensitive experiences caught in the company’s algorithm made the situation worse.

“The very little trust I had in the administration is just destroyed,” he said. “You can’t expect students to trust you if you’ve done nothing to earn that trust.”

This story was originally published by The 74. 

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