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Student monitoring software draws scrutiny

Gaggle, a school surveillance and safety management software that has generated criticism since being introduced in Durham schools, will come under the microscope again at a school board meeting on May 18, when DPS will provide an update on the software’s use.

Originally piloted at six Durham schools during the 2021-2022 school year, Gaggle was expanded to the entire district on January 23. It now monitors all DPS students’ (pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade) school laptops, emails and online accounts across Google, Microsoft and other suites or educational platforms like Canvas. 

Students, parents, educators and community members expressed concern about privacy, possible effects on student mental health, data sharing and costs at a February 9 Board of Education work session. 

“We have been entrusted with people’s children…and this is peeking in their diaries,” Natalie Beyer, a DPS board member, said at the meeting. “This is an overreaction, an over-policing, an over-criminalization of children.”

In an emailed statement, DPS officials said they intend to share more information about the software at the May 18 meeting: “We expect a thorough conversation about the benefits and challenges of using a service such as Gaggle to identify risks to the health and safety of students and staff,” the statement said. “We recognize the privacy concerns that have been voiced and will share information about our use of the product to date.”

Gaggle is part of the national $3 billion school security industry. According to its website, its “mission is to ensure the safety and well-being of students and schools by leveraging people and technology.” 

As of 2022, Gaggle was used by more than 440,000 students across 67 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts. Neighboring Wake County ended its Gaggle pilot program — one of the first in the country — on June 30. 

The service relies on artificial intelligence and human workers. Artificial intelligence detects buzzwords like “suicide” or “gun,” flags students who use them and sends a Gaggle alert to contracted third-party employees who determine whether the content is potentially problematic. If so, Gaggle employees then categorize the content as “questionable content” or “possible student situations.” 

Gaggle defines as questionable content “items that give cause for concern and need to be brought to the attention of an administrator but do not represent an immediate threat.” Possible student situations are “items that reveal an imminent threat to the student or others.” 

Gaggle was piloted in Durham last school year at City of Medicine Academy, Hillside New Tech High/Durham School of Technology, Ignite! Online Academy, J D Clement Early College, Rogers-Herr Middle School and The School for Creative Studies.

Over the course of the 2021-2022 pilot, Gaggle flagged 399 pieces of content — 372 as “questionable content” and 27 as “possible student situations.” 

Gaggle reports for every student incident must be released to parents upon request. Students cannot opt out from the software, and the company owns and manages student data over the lifetime of its agreements, attorney Carolyn Murchison said at the meeting. However, Gaggle is prohibited from selling or disseminating the information and the data reverts to DPS if the contract is terminated. 

During the Durham pilot program, one LGBTQ student was outed to their family, Anne Sutkowi-Hemstreet, founder of Rainbow Collective for Change, a Durham initiative for “LGBTQ+ families,” said at the work session. 

The student was flagged by the software for risk of self-harm, Sutkowi-Hemstreet said. Then a school counselor shared the entire Gaggle report with the student’s parents, who were unsupportive of their child’s identity. The parents declined the district’s offer of mental health services for their child, she said. 

“I am highlighting how dangerous it is to have your Gaggle software program in place when maybe you haven’t thought about the unintended harms that it can cause LGBTQ students and other marginalized students,” said Sutkowi-Hemstreet. “I am also highlighting how dangerous it is to limit resources and necessary training for educators and other school professionals.” 

Parents, students and board members also expressed concern about Gaggle’s “possible student situation” (PSS) alert process. During school hours, school officials are first notified of such situations. If Gaggle issues an alert after school hours, school and district officials (three DPS officials, the student’s school principal and others within the school) are alerted and attempt to contact parents or guardians. If unable to make contact with guardians, officials call 911, provide the student’s address and ask officers to execute a “mental health welfare check.” 

As the board was discussing welfare checks and PSS alerts, two DPS staffers, Eva Howard and Joy Malone, announced that, earlier in the meeting, they had received a Gaggle alert that flagged a student for risk of self-harm, based upon a suicide letter. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to reach parents, Malone and Howard “contacted law enforcement to conduct a welfare check” at the student’s home, where the student was deemed safe, Howard said.

“When we can’t contact a parent, we have to contact law enforcement,” she added.

Training is another point of controversy. DPS educators received four days of Gaggle training from January 17-20 before Gaggle was implemented across the district on January 23. In the first seven days of use, Gaggle flagged 6,578 pieces of content on DPS computers. Students and families were informed of the new software via a January 26 robocall, which stated that Gaggle “monitors student district accounts to scan for harmful content and alert us when students show signs of self-harm, cyberbullying, credible threats of violence, or other harmful situations.” 

At the work session, board member Natalie Beyer read aloud a letter concerning training sent to her from a DPS teacher.

“The training I received from the Gaggle company representative did not include any direction for DPS educators and administrators about how to respond to the flood of documents, emails and photos that would appear in a few short days,” the letter said. 

During the first week of using Gaggle, the teacher saw personal emails, recreational creative writing and photographs. “None of these things were meant for my eyes; none of my students had any reason to believe I would be viewing them,” the teacher wrote. 

Gaggle Senior Vice President of Operations Helen Durkac sought to dispel fears and quell concerns about the software’s methods and potential effects on children’s development. Since its founding in 1999, Gaggle has constantly been working to perfect its “bank” of words and phrases to flag, she said. 

“That makes me very proud of the work that Gaggle has done and the partnership we have,” she said. 

Gaggle’s services will cost the district some $440,000 over two years, using grant money awarded in 2021 by the state from its federal pandemic relief money. 

“Surely, we can spend the same money in far less Draconian ways,” Ron Baron, a DPS parent, said. “A few more social workers would be nice.” Board members Emily Chavez and Alexandra Valladares and Board Chair Bettina Umstead expressed similar concern over drawing attention and funding away from in-person, relationship-based counseling. 

“Our focus at the district is how we build relationships and connections with people so that students feel that there’s an adult in their school that they can talk to. I don’t want [Gaggle’s implementation] to feel like a replacement of that either…It doesn’t sit quite right with me,” Umstead said. 

The upcoming discussion on May 18 will be important, because the district’s agreement with Gaggle expires June 30. The board will need to vote before then on whether to renew the contract. 

“I would like to see us revisit this item in June to get a sense of this longer pilot, where we are,” Umstead said. “We need to understand if we’re supporting students’ needs or [if there are] any ways that we might be causing harm.”

CORRECTION, May 19 – This article has been updated. The original version incorrectly said that Anne Sutkowi-Hemstreet was a DPS parent.

Ryan Pelosky