New software to monitor Henrico students’ online activity

(Photo by Analise Beres for the Henrico Citizen)

Henrico County Public Schools officials plan to request increased police presence in schools and $5 million for security camera upgrades from the Henrico Board of Supervisors at their next meeting.

And, they intend to implement software that will monitor students’ online activity.

Henrico Schools Superintendent Amy Cashwell made that announcement to supervisors July 12 while giving a presentation about school safety during a board of supervisors work session.

HCPS plans to implement software that will scan students’ web searches on school-issued computers and send weekly emails to parents with information about students’ online activities, Cashwell said. The software program was recently piloted at select HCPS schools and is meant to search for evidence of potential self harm or harm to others, she said.

Henrico Police Chief Col. Eric English said that social media threats of violence within schools have become increasingly common. The software would seek to identify and flag this sort of dangerous online behavior.

Monitoring of students’ online behavior could help officials identify school shooters as they become radicalized, a 2019 study published in the APA’s Journal of Threat Assessment and Management found. In the months leading up to the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, the gunman frequently engaged in violent online behavior, sending angry messages, pictures of guns, and threats to rape and kidnap girls, The Texas Tribune reported.

Surveillance of students’ online activity, however, has raised several questions about student privacy, especially after the pandemic increased the need for school-issued devices. The Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit policy organization, released a study in 2021 that suggested students in lower-income districts may be subjected to a higher degree of monitoring than students in wealthier districts, who are more likely to make use of personal devices.

In a September 2021 report, The Future of Privacy Forum published findings that computer systems’ limited abilities to interpret context often caused monitoring systems to inaccurately or mistakenly flag student content and over-collect confidential data. The FPF warned that the implementation of such softwares could hurt more than help, specifically noting complications with privacy and confidentiality.

“Education stakeholders should remember that privacy protections can enhance mental health support programs by encouraging students to feel they can safely ask adults for help because they know that the information shared will remain confidential,” the authors of the report wrote.

The FPF published an infographic that explains how such softwares monitor students’ online-activities.

Tuckahoe Supervisor Patricia O’Bannon expressed strong support for the new software.

“I think that’s perfect,” she said, “[Parents] are the ones who need to know that. . . [I]n my opinion, that’s not spying.”

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HCPS will request $500,000 in personnel costs for 10 additional school resource officers in an effort to address vacancies and threats and add relief for the 28 currently serving. To avoid spending additional money, 10 budgeted and vacant positions in other County agencies will be reallocated to the police department, County Manager John Vithoulkas said.

The county currently lacks an adequate pool of trained school resource officers, Henrico Police Major Kim Johnson said.

“I appreciate the other departments who are going to take the bullet for us and give up a vacant position so we don’t have to move additional money to put the resources where we need it in this community, where we need it in this country,” Brookland Supervisor Dan Schmitt said, expressing overwhelming support for the plan and the progression of safety measures in schools.

The new officers will undergo 80 hours of SRO training in August and rotate between street and school service as needed.  Every middle and high school within HCPS has at least one officer assigned to it, but some, like Douglas Freeman High School, have two.

Varina Supervisor Tyrone Nelson expressed fears that the additional officers would be placed in schools that already have a high police presence, citing tension between minority students and law enforcement as well as increased assault charges for Eastern Henrico students by SROs as reasons for concern.

“There are parents of minority kids who are concerned about adding additional police officers to schools because of relationships, etc,” he said. “[SROs should be added] for their safety, not to be a second or third assistant principal.”

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The presence of SROs in schools has been a highly contested issue in the state of Virginia throughout the past few years. In April 2022, HB873 was signed into law, requiring all public elementary and secondary schools to employ at least one SRO.

In March 2021, 11 organizations requested that the Henrico School Board remove all police officers from schools.

“[E]ven when SROs are not directly involved in school discipline, their presence can shift schools’ practices in subtle ways that make exclusionary discipline more likely,” the group wrote.

The addition of trained officers will also provide opportunities for the reintroduction of police-run middle school programs, Cashwell said.

“At times when we don’t necessarily need them to cover secondary schools, it also gives us a pool of officers who are trained to be able to assist in providing instruction within our middle schools, something we haven’t been able to do in years because of our inability to staff all the positions in our secondary schools,” Cashwell said.

The safety presentation also provided a comprehensive overview of recent technological advances within the HCPS system.

The $5 million for security camera upgrades and repositioning projects, if approved after HCPS requests it at the next board meeting July 26, would be drawn from state revenue, which has come in over what the budget anticipated, Vithoulkas said.

“The recommendation is that we use that on this immediate need,” Vithoulkas said. “These are dollars that were unbudgeted, the need is there.”

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