The Debate Over School Safety and Student Privacy in The Age of Digital Education

Anika Rao, Co-Editor-in-Chief

In the past few years, there has been a rapid shift towards the digitization of public education in the United States. The pandemic accelerated this trend, with schools across the country choosing to hold classes online to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While access to technology in educational institutions prepares students for the future and can support learning, schools are not immune to concerns about internet privacy. School districts across the country have been the target of claims that they infringe on students’ privacy and do not adequately protect sensitive student data. I interviewed Sam Quantz, the Salt Lake City School District’s Chief Information Officer, about the internet regulations the district has to adhere to as well as its efforts to preserve student privacy.

One of the primary tools the district uses is iBoss, an internet content filter. iBoss determines whether websites are appropriate in an educational setting based on its content. Mr. Quantz t old The Red & Black that the district is “compliance-oriented” — it has to adhere to several state and federal rules and regulations. The Children’s Internet Protection Act, for example, requires schools to restrict access to child pornography, pictures that are obscene, or other internet materials that are deemed “harmful to minors.” While this may seem like a vague term, Mr. Quantz says that websites that are generally accepted as harmful are those that contain harmful depictions of guns, alcohol, or drugs. CIPA is reinforced by Section 1002 in Chapter 7 of Utah State Code 53G, which says that state funding “may not be provided to any local school board […] unless [it] adopts and enforces a policy to restrict access to Internet or online sites that contain obscene material.”

In addition to state and federal rules and regulations, the district sets its own guidelines for students’ internet access based on current circumstances. For example, a gaming website may not be blocked by CIPA, but could be blocked by district administrators depending on the circumstances. District rules are not inflexible; individual schools have some autonomy in their students’ internet access. Schools can request a site to be opened or blocked, and individual teachers can embed Youtube videos that may have otherwise been restricted in Canvas or a tool called MyVRSpot. The district does not want internet restrictions to be “a barrier to student learning,” according to Mr. Quantz.

As some schools across the state began to send devices home a few years ago, the Utah legislature passed House Bill 231, Safe Technology Utilization and Digital Citizenship in Public Schools, which requires school districts to filter all devices on and off site. This provision proved unexpectedly useful when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as many schools, including those in our district, began to administer individual devices to students for the first time.

Of course, as Mr. Quantz says, parents’ concerns about their children’s activity on the internet are also a key factor that the district takes into consideration. When the district administered laptops to students in March of 2020, it was forced to temporarily unblock Youtube due to its replacement of synchronous classes. The district also did not have the ability to restrict certain videos but open others, according to Mr. Quantz. However, he says that during that window, “the number of calls I received from parents wanting us to block [Youtube] because students were looking at inappropriate items grew exponentially.” That prompted district officials to find alternatives to Youtube.

While students sometimes feel that the school district’s method of content filtering is often excessively harsh, Mr. Quantz feels that it is justified. “The first thing that everybody needs to understand,” he says, “is what the purpose of our schools are: to provide an excellent and equitable learning environment for all of our students.” By preventing access to disruptive content, he says, “we are protecting the integrity of your learning environment” and “helping you become a responsible digital citizen, not only in school, but into your adulthood.”’

A concern that has arisen from our increasingly digitized education system is the balance between school safety and the preservation of a safe learning environment and student privacy. Our relatively new degree of interconnectedness in schools is valuable in many cases, but some argue that it has given educational institutions the ability to infringe on students’ privacy rights.

According to Mr. Quantz, school districts have access to a student’s entire educational record. This includes class enrollment, school enrollment, grades, and disciplinary record. Schools can also have access to medical information and family income, depending on the district support families apply for. However, Mr. Quantz says that access to this data “isn’t about convenience.” The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Utah Student Privacy and Data Protection Act require that only “school officials” who have “legitimate educational interests” should have access to sensitive data.

When a student is using school WiFi or a district device, the school district has access to most of their communications. This is because when a person is not using their own private network, the organization that owns the network is liable for its usage. For example, if a student or employee accesses something inappropriate or illegal, the district assumes some of the responsibility for the consequences. Most of the time, however, school administrators do not monitor private communications, “unless we see a problem.”.

Bullying is one of these problems, according to Mr. Quantz. If a student uses certain flagged terms, such as “suicide,” the iBoss system notifies a few district employees. These employees then investigate the student’s activity in a method that does not “violate students’ privacy, but protects their safety,” says Mr. Quantz.

While the school district’s ability to monitor student activity may be beneficial in some cases, many argue that it goes too far. Excessive surveillance, they argue, can do harm to students’ mental health and can collect data that, despite the district’s attempts to protect student data and preserve network security, may be used for nefarious purposes. Those who are most vulnerable to these risks are low-income students, who may not be able to afford private devices and thereby privacy. There are clear ethical concerns about student privacy in schools, but Mr. Quantz believes that the benefits of the district’s technology outweigh these harms.

Mr. Quantz, along with many school administrators, believes that in any situation that  “could affect a student’s health, safety, and well-being” or “affects a student’s ability to learn,” it is appropriate for the school district to intervene. The district’s foremost priority, he says, is to protect the integrity of students’ learning environments. Mr. Quantz acknowledges that there are faults in the system, and school officials’ efforts are not always sufficient. However, he believes that the successes of the district’s system justify the flaws.

Mr. Quantz says that the iBoss system has, in some cases, prevented damage to students’ mental well-being. Over winter break, he says, a student in the district was considered “at risk” based on their internet activity, and the police were sent to their house to conduct a “wellness check.” While this could be effective in many cases, receiving an unexpected visit from the police could also be even more damaging for a student’s mental health. However, it is important to recognize that the school district is well-intentioned, and that in many cases, like this one, it pays off.

“We live in a digital world,” says Mr. Quantz, and it’s unlikely that schools will shift away from technology in the near future. What’s important now is for students to adapt to the world we live in and learn how to be good digital citizens. “Your behavior online can follow you for the rest of your life,” says Mr. Quantz. Regardless of whether you delete what you post on the internet, companies have “backups upon backups” that ensure “things we say online stay there forever.” As students, we need to be wise about what information we are sharing, who we are sharing that information with, and the validity of online sources of information. If you want to learn more about the district’s efforts to protect your data, you can visit to review its Data Governance and IT Security Plans.