Does student safety take precedence over the freedom to read?: Choose Privacy Week 2019

By Anonymous

I have a favorite cartoon depicting a compassionate, energetic librarian superhero with extraordinary search powers cheerfully connecting patrons with all the information they could possibly desire. My imagination adds the extra superpower of boldly deflecting intrusive policies that hinder my students’ First and Fourth Amendment rights. I’m a warrior preserving privacy, supporting intellectual growth, and establishing the very foundations of civil discourse in a democratic republic. Ah, heady stuff.

In library school my professors diligently taught professional ethical responsibilities. I learned that a patron’s age should not be a barrier to the acquisition of information and that all people deserve confidentiality when using resources and asking questions of the reference librarian. In the state where I reside there is even a statute that explicitly addresses the importance of keeping library records private. Any library that obtains public funds may not disclose the “identity of any individual who borrows or uses the library’s documents or other materials, resources, or services” unless under court order or upon written request by a parent/guardian if the child is under the age of 15. This is a sacred trust that is often unknown and little understood by the public.

I am fortunate to work in a high school library media center, and I take my duty to protect my students’ library records very seriously. Searching for resources used to be limited to what was available in print and via a handful of computers housed in the library. Now all students have been issued a Chromebook and have access to a wealth of databases, eBooks, and curated sites at any time of the day or night.

In the past, privacy intrusions could be fairly easily deflected by reminding administrators of the state statute and wiping circulation records from the library management system. This does not minimize the sweaty palms and discomfort you feel when having to tell your principal that she cannot see someone’s circulation records. Things are a lot more complicated in the age of ubiquitous screens and big data, and all professional ethics inculcated in library school do not really stand up to reality outside a university setting.

The community where I work is extremely concerned with the steady self-reported increase in adolescent anxiety and depression. Some young people have lost their lives to suicide and unintended overdose, so everyone is desperate to keep students safe. At the same time, ubiquitous technology is infused in all aspects of a students’ day. Lessons are taught via a learning management system, Google Suite is used to complete assignments, and library resources are always available with a tap of a key. An app has been purchased and promoted as a means for students to anonymously tell administrators when someone is about to cause harm. Teachers have been told that it has stopped some tragic behavior. The key is that the use of this reporting app is anonymous and a personal choice.

Another piece of software now runs on the network to monitor student behavior and reinforce appropriate use of school-provided technology. It not only filters the Internet, but it also invites parents and guardians to see their student’s search history. Students cannot opt out, and many teenagers are unaware that is always running in the background whether they are searching a library sponsored resource, writing a paper, playing a game, surfing the web, or watching a video. Collection development is an important part of my job, and I have been purchasing unlimited, simultaneous-use eBooks on all manner of topics especially related to health, sexuality, and identity. eBooks seemed a perfect way to get credible information in the hands of questioning students and at the same time preserve their autonomy and dignity. I wondered if parents could now see what eBook students were reading, what articles they were searching for in databases, and what terms they were typing in the online catalog. When I learned about the deployment of this software, I was appalled. I tried to educate senior leaders on students’ intellectual freedom and privacy rights. I pointed out that inquisitive teens have the right to be untrammeled in their pursuit of answers and that if they felt they were being spied upon they would seek the answer from sources that were not carefully selected for the collection. None of these arguments persuaded them to think differently about how the software was deployed. In fact, they refused to discuss the issue and implied the topic was verboten.

I was able to work with a family and implemented a series of controlled searches to see what would be revealed in a search history report. The software intruded up to a point. For example, one could see that the student used an EBSCO database and opened the catalog application. At the present time, the report does not drill more deeply and reveal the title of the book searched or the article found in the database. Titles of subject specific databases and topical libguides did turn up on the report, and that might be particularly troubling for students who use the teen health database even when the parent has opted them out of health class.

Electronic surveillance of students needs to be explicitly addressed in state and federal statutes. Many regulations were written before anyone could conceive of a networked library with ubiquitous devices. What happens to the community and representative democracy when young people have no expectation of privacy or personal sovereignty when using school library sources? Does safety override everything else so surveillance takes precedence? Does the dramatic increase in student-reported anxiety have anything to do with online monitoring by Internet companies, schools, and parents? Is privacy something quaint, an old-fashioned ideal only experienced by our grandparents? What about all the students who are 18-years of age? Do their parents have a right to monitor their online behavior? Do students even understand they have a right to pursue answers to questions without the intrusion of the state? What will be the future of America if people relinquish their privacy for safety and security?

I do not have all the answers and I know some compromises must be made to protect those under the age of 18. It is fine to fantasize about having superpowers to connect students with resources, but what argument is powerful enough to convince administrators to use an abundance of caution before deploying network surveillance software? History is awash with examples of seemingly benign data collection that morphed into something sinister. Young people are citizens and, therefore, do not give up all their privacy rights upon entering the schoolhouse doors. We, who have taken an oath to preserve privacy and uphold intellectual freedom, must continue to ask as many questions as we can when administrators collect sensitive student data and offer to help write policies that protect statutory rights and support safe schools.

The author has spent over two decades working as a library media specialist in Wisconsin. She helps students develop into lifelong learners who are curious about the world and their place in it. She considers herself a First Amendment advocate and supports her student’s intellectual freedom rights and their right to read.