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  • Theo Weller

DCPS Surveillance Raises Concerns

Teachers can see what students are doing on their school-issued computers in real-time / Credits: Josie McCartney

School has become more reliant on digital technologies. A computer has become a necessity at Walls, and many students use computers offered by the school. But those who use these school computers should be aware that DCPS staff may monitor their activity. 

Previously, only the Office of the Chief of Technology Officer could review activities on school devices remotely. Now, Walls teachers can view all student activity in real time on school days from 7:30 AM to 5:45 PM, a capability enabled by DCPS’ switch to Lightspeed Systems Software.

According to Lightspeed’s website, their software is used to “gain insights into the safety and usage of tools and devices, prevent risky online activity … and meet regulations to continue keeping students and data safe.” The company cites their ability to detect concerning student behavior like cyberbullying or suicidal ideations in promoting the tracking of student activity.

DCPS’ version of Lightspeed has teachers input their class hours into the software. During this set time, teachers can directly observe the activity of any students in their class using school laptops in real time — without notifying the students. This includes students’ browser tabs as well as other apps on the computer like Microsoft Word. Teachers can also view students’ search history. A teacher confirmed these abilities in statements to the Rookery.

The Lightspeed software offers users the ability to record activity on laptops while students use them.

Furthermore, teachers can begin a live monitoring session on a student’s school laptop at any time from 7:30-5:45 on school days. This window significantly extends beyond school hours. This range of hours may have been created to accommodate the school clubs and office hours outside of the regular school day. 

However, not all students use school-provided devices, instead using their personal laptops. These students thus aren’t subject to monitoring through Lightspeed. But this disparity raises some concerns. In a survey of School Without Walls students, one student responded, “I think [DCPS’ use of Lightspeed] is really unfair and also targets students who have school computers over those who can afford personal laptops.” 

Many students use their school-issued computer for legitimate purposes unrelated to school because they don’t have a viable alternative. This can include private information, which could potentially be viewed using Lightspeed. For example, one student said “I filled out all my financial aid stuff for [the QuestBridge Scholarship] on my school computer with copies of tax forms and Social Security numbers.” The student was unaware that that information could potentially be monitored, and had used a school computer because their personal device was too slow. 

Though not necessarily DCPS’ intent, the current system seems to force lower-income students to give up some personal privacy in order to fully participate in their classes. With the prominence of Canvas in DCPS schools, a computer is not optional. 

In response to these concerns, Principal Sylvia Isaac reminded that even students who use personal devices are subject to monitoring when using DCPS Wi-Fi. She also emphasized that agreeing to a code of conduct is standard when using a government-issued device.

Referring to her own DCPS-issued work computer, Ms. Isaac said she cannot “use it in a manner that violates that contract that [she has] to sign in order to have the device.” 

Ms. Isaac confirmed that DCPS has notified the school before about potentially concerning student communications made on school computers outside of school hours. She also confirmed that findings on school computers could be grounds for disciplinary action by the school.

Additionally, the DCPS Student and Staff Technology and Network Acceptable Use Policy, which students agree to when they sign the Responsible Use form to receive a laptop, says that “there is no expectation of privacy” using school-issued devices. The policy continues that “all student accounts created by DCPS for students … may be monitored by DCPS staff.” 

While students must agree to that policy in order to take home a school-issued device, the full 15-page policy is only referenced on the Responsible Use form. Many students feel they haven’t been informed about their digital privacy. 

In a survey of 52 Walls students, a staggering 94.2 percent of respondents responded “No” to the question “Do you think the school effectively communicates its laptop monitoring policies to students?” In another part of the questionnaire, just 11.5 percent of respondents said they felt adequately informed on the school’s laptop monitoring policy. 

Though a slight majority (56 percent) of respondents were at least partially aware that their activity on DCPS-issued laptops could be viewed live by teachers from 7:30-5:45, few learned this from the school or DCPS. Rather, they had learned about DCPS’ monitoring from teachers or fellow classmates. One respondent said, “it is weird how the school has never mentioned anything about this ever to us. First time I found out about this was by word of mouth. They should have mentioned something about this during an advisory meeting so the whole school is informed.”

Ms. Isaac responded that the school has done multiple presentations to students on digital citizenship and safe online behavior. She added, “there's always opportunities to educate and provide information to students, again, about sites they should or should not be using.” Nonetheless, no presentations in recent years from DCPS or Walls have clearly explained privacy in the use of school devices. 

In addition to students, many members of the School Without Walls administration, too, weren’t very familiar with Lightspeed and its capabilities. 

The introduction of Lightspeed Systems Software to DCPS was done quietly but raises important questions about students’ digital privacy. The monitoring of school computers is indeed legal since DCPS owns the laptops and students agree to a contract. However, many students feel uninformed about their privacy.


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