By Hillary Davis, Policy Associate

There’s no doubt that technology has changed the way our children learn. With computers, tablets, cell phones and the Internet, Rhode Island’s students are privy to more information – with more diverse voices – than ever before. It’s no wonder that schools are jumping at the chance to incorporate even more technology into the classroom and, often, to send that technology home with students. For the past two school years, Rhode Island’s school districts have supplied children with school-owned devices – usually Chromebook or MacBook laptops, and sometimes iPads. These devices can mean that students have apps and other specially-designed tools at their fingertips, including the ability to connect quickly and remotely with other students or their teacher. It can also mean wonderful things for children who otherwise don’t have access to technology at home.

But bringing the classroom into a family’s living room can also mean the line between home and school can be blurred or erased entirely. That’s where the ACLU gets concerned.

In addition to great potential for good use, today’s technology carries tremendous potential for misuse. In 2010, a Philadelphia school district was famously sued after webcams on their take-home laptops were used – without the child’s or parent’s consent – to remotely capture and store images of a number of students in their own homes. Despite nationwide outcry, many of the Rhode Island school technology policies reviewed by the ACLU of Rhode Island during the 2014-2015 school year expressly permit this exact practice. By stating that students have “no expectation of privacy” and that the devices can be searched at any time, including by remote access, Rhode Island’s schools require parents to sign away their privacy, with no meaningful ability for parents to opt-out of the technology program.

Regardless of the school policy that devices are to be used for school work, it is highly likely that many students – most of whom have not yet been educated as to what an “expectation of privacy” even is – are going to use the laptops to some extent for personal use at home. This may include surfing the Web, logging in to social media, taking photos with the laptop camera, sending email, or a host of other benign behaviors. This activity may expose far more information about a student than can be found in their backpack or locker at school, and deserves protection. Yet, to date, no laws protect student privacy in regard to these devices. In fact, under many of these policies, students can get in trouble at school for the harmless Internet surfing they do at home. Because school officials can search the device at random and without any reason to believe a student has engaged in serious misbehavior, students (and their parents, if they pick up the device closest to them) can be held accountable for anything that appears in their browsing history that isn’t related to school work.

The ACLU is trying to change that. During the 2015 legislative session, we supported legislation that, among other things, would limit inspection of devices only to those situations in which the school or district has reason to believe the student has engaged in school-related misconduct, or that there are technical issues with the device. We can think of no other reason a school official would need such access. The legislation would also limit remote access unless the student initiates a video or audio chat, like Skype, for educational purposes, or there is an emergency involving a threat to life or safety. The bill died during the last legislative session, but in 2016 we’ll be there supporting it once again.

If you or your child have concerns about a school-owned device in your home, please contact the ACLU at 831-7171. Privacy and technology don’t have to be at odds; together, we can make sure that schools have the tools they need, and that those tools can’t be misused.