How student journalists fought a Kansas district over spyware and won


By Sherman smith, Kansas Reflector

This article was originally published on Kansas Reflector.

When Lawrence Public Schools deployed spyware last fall, district officials said it would help them respond to a growing mental health crisis by monitoring students’ correspondence, photos, classwork and files.

But student journalists were alarmed by the First Amendment problems inherent with the district’s implementation of the surveillance program, made by Gaggle. As district officials dismissed the students’ concerns, they gathered evidence that Gaggle was failing in its core mission to protect students while violating their privacy and free speech rights.

And the four seniors who led the charge — Morgan Salisbury, Maya Smith, Jack Tell and Natasha Torkzaban — refused to be quiet about it.

“I think all four of us are unapologetically loud when it comes to situations like this,” Torkzaban said.

Last week, after five months of sometimes-tense negotiations, the district agreed to remove student journalists from the surveillance program. But the journalists want assurances that the rest of the students, and future students, won’t be subjected to unwarranted intrusions.

The four seniors met Friday with school board president Kelly Jones and presented her with eight pages of recommended policy changes that would address legal and ethical concerns with the district’s use of Gaggle. Jones promised she would take their recommendations seriously.

She also praised the students for their self-advocacy. Jones, who teaches policymaking at the University of Kansas, said the high schoolers had produced better documentation than some of her college students.

“That’s impressive — what they have done and the way that they’ve led, the way that they’ve educated the board, what they’re advocating for,” Jones said. “To be honest, I’m just really proud of it.”

“Now where we have to go is look at what were the unintended consequences of Gaggle?” she added. “How do we make determinations about how we’re going to use it moving forward?”

For the four seniors, who had battled district-level administrators for five months, the meeting with Jones was refreshingly positive and productive.

The school board last year entered a three-year, $162,285.75 agreement with Gaggle, a company that uses artificial intelligence to monitor school-owned devices and storage spaces for references to self-harm, depression, drug use and violence. The district purchased the spyware with a grant to comply with Kansas State Board of Education standards for safe and secure schools.

It isn’t clear how many other public school districts in Kansas use Gaggle or similar platforms, but the practice of spying on students raises serious legal concerns about student privacy.

In practice, Gaggle routinely flags innocuous messages and photos, allowing school officials to review them for violations of the school’s code of conduct. It also allows school officials to see what journalists are working on before their stories are published — a clear violation of constitutional rights and state law.

Max Kautsch, a First Amendment attorney, said programs like Gaggle’s “create a security state within public schools that has an unreasonably chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech, such as statements critical of the administration.”

“By using Gaggle, the school is effectively proactively gagging its students, even those seeking to express core political speech, in a form of impermissible prior restraint,” Kautsch said.

A big moment

The district claims that Gaggle only scans documents saved to school-owned devices and accounts.

But the student journalists discovered the program was scanning documents shared from private accounts. Torkzaban, a co-editor of The Budget, the student newspaper, said she was flagged by Gaggle for editing a story with the words “mental health.”

“That was a very big moment for us, because we realized we weren’t actually as protected as we thought we were, although we already had these very deep concerns,” Torkzaban said.

The district’s answer: If you don’t like it, don’t use the school’s devices or accounts.

That isn’t practical. Students are required to use school accounts for class assignments, and some students can’t afford to purchase their own computers.

The students said building-level administrators were sympathetic to their concerns. But they said district-level officials didn’t understand how spying on students could compromise their reporting.

“It compromises our sources, our ability to use anonymous sources in cases where we do need to speak out against people in power — administration, district office,” Smith said. “It makes it really difficult, and it puts us in danger, honestly. It puts our sources in danger, as well.”

Smith’s reporting included a story about how the district used Gaggle to censor the work of art students. The AI — and Gaggle’s contract-based reviewers — signaled to school officials that the art students’ photos contained nudity, which was false. The students were called to the principal’s office and asked to explain, much to their confusion, why they were in possession of child pornography.

Among the images that were censored were ones that showed a girl in a tank top looking in a mirror and a fully clothed girl lying on a couch at the far end of a room. Neither would have been in violation of the school’s dress code.

The episode raised questions for the journalists about the accuracy of the program and the low-wage contractors who review images and other materials for Gaggle.

A shiny sticker

Lawrence Public Schools spokeswoman Julie Boyle says Gaggle has allowed administrators to intervene in 31 situations where there was potential for self harm or harm to others.

“Our teachers and staff are outstanding at connecting with students and building strong relationships,” Boyle said. “Still, there are young people, including young people in crisis, who don’t feel that they have a trusted adult they are comfortable going to for help. Our administration has to look at challenges like this from a districtwide perspective and use all of the tools available to us to help keep every student safe.”

When Gaggle’s AI detects a potential problem, a “content reviewer” verifies the threat and, if warranted, forwards it to school leaders.

“Work from home” job postings show Gaggle offers contractors $10 per hour to review at least 250 items per hour. Applicants must have basic computer skills and knowledge of teenage slang.

Shelby McIntosh Goldman, spokeswoman for Gaggle, said the company conducts an annual comprehensive criminal and commercial background check of anyone who reviews content. The company also conducts audits to ensure their accuracy.

“Gaggle is first and foremost focused on the safety and protection of students,” Goldman said.

Student journalists are sensitive to their classmates’ mental health needs but skeptical of claims that Gaggle was saving lives.

“It’s interesting to see a new and shiny sticker slapped on an issue that’s very deep rooted in our society — and one that, you know, we have lots of concerns about,” Torkzaban said.

The journalists tested the system and discovered the program would block a student’s email from being delivered to a teacher if it includes keywords like “mental health” or “suicide.” Alarmingly, the student wasn’t notified.

“Imagine if a student finally builds himself up and pours their guts out to a teacher about some issue that they’re struggling with, and that email doesn’t get delivered to that teacher, and then they don’t get a response,” Salisbury said.

Boyle said the district has reconfigured settings to address that scenario.

“It’s so new and so unheard of and so, so brash to try to solve an issue that’s as big as mental health,” Salisbury said. “It’s really difficult to see it run into so quickly and seen as a solution when it causes so many problems.”

A weird setup

Tell, co-editor of The Budget, said district-level administrators didn’t treat their concerns with urgency.

In addition to constitutional concerns about free speech and warrantless search and seizure, the Kansas Student Publications Act prohibits disruptions to student reporting.

The students described tense meetings with district officials, including one where the students were told not to bring an advocate or attorney because it was just a “fact-finding” meeting. But when they showed up, the 18-year-olds were outnumbered 12-4 by adults who hold tremendous power over them.

“They brought their lawyer and discouraged us from bringing ours for the purpose of trying to get us to quiet down,” Tell said.

Torkzaban said superintendent Anthony Lewis and other district officials were dismissive of their concerns.

“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t quite understand what you guys want from us in this meeting, because I’m not allowed to interject and say I disagree with you at all,’ ” Torkzaban said.

Smith said “it was just a weird setup.”

“It made us feel very talked down to at times,” Smith said. “I felt like we weren’t taken as seriously.”

But the students were determined to keep fighting — and reporting.

“We didn’t go to law school. We don’t have a background in law,” Torkzaban said. “But I can tell you one thing. It’s that we’re very, very aware of our First Amendment rights. We’re very aware of where we stand as student journalists in that we are not afraid to call people out on it when we feel like our rights are being compromised.”

An about-face

Barbara Tholen, journalism teacher at Lawrence High School, said district officials needed to understand that journalism is a process, not just a published story.

You can’t have independent journalism unless the entire process is protected, she said.

“When you’re in a situation where you’re worried about the government looking over your shoulder, students tend to start to self-censor, they tend to start to avoid topics that could be controversial,” Tholen said.

The students were shocked last week when district officials did an about-face and decided they would remove the journalism staff from surveillance.

In a statement, the superintendent said the district values student journalism.

“The students made a compelling case, and I appreciate their willingness to discuss with us differing perspectives on these issues,” Lewis said. “We came up with a solution because we want to support our students and the journalism process, and I believe that it addresses their concerns.”

On Friday, the four seniors outlined for Jones, the school board president, and Quentin Rials, the high school principal, policy proposals that would protect free press rights and the intellectual property of all students. They ask that all students have an expectation to privacy except in circumstances where there is reasonable suspicion to allow for a search. Current policy says students have no expectation of privacy.

Jones was receptive to working with students to revise the way the district uses Gaggle.

“There’s a balance between which of those products are doing what we hope they do, which is make our buildings and our students and our staff as safe as possible, while also protecting their rights as individuals to have autonomy and choice in what they communicate,” Jones said in an interview.

Tell said it was encouraging to finally have a meeting where everyone wanted to help, understood their concerns, and wanted to hear them.

Or as Salisbury put it: “After so much discouragement from people in power, it’s really refreshing to know that the community kind of has your back.”

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