School board considers contractor to monitor student email, internet activity

Photo of Justin Papp

WESTPORT — For all of time school administrators have preached student safety. Now, with emerging technologies, there are new, and sometimes controversial, ways to try to ensure no student is hurt.

One of those, Gaggle Safety Management, a student email provider that uses buzz words having to do with self-harm, profanity and hate speech, nudity and sexual content, violence toward others, or drug and alcohol use to mine student’s emails, for grades three through 12, and Google Drive, for all students K through 12, to hopefully prevent a problem.

“What’s the extent of the problem this is addressing? What need are you serving? How many drug deals are being done on the student email? Maybe it’ll be a lot, but maybe it’s not,” said Lee Goldstein, Coleytown Middle School PTA co-president, at a Tuesday night special meeting of the Board of Education at which Westport Public Schools Director of Technology presented the possible service change.

“This is not, in my opinion, something we’re asking the board to review because we want to catch drug deals,” said Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer. Instead, Palmer said, the goal is to aid students who may have put something in writing about hurting themselves or others.

“The goal is not to be punitive. The goal is to say, it’s another tool in our tool kit to keep our students safe in this world of technology,” Palmer said.

The data of students is protected by Connecticut Public Act 16-89, which was passed in October 2016 and mandates that school districts enter into a written contract with any service provider whenever student data is provided or shared.

The district’s Student Acceptable Use Policy states, “I understand that my use of the school system’s computers is not private and that the district reserves the right to monitor use to assure compliance with these guidelines; violations may lead to revocation of computer access and/or other disciplinary measures.”

The service is a year subscription that could start this semester, pro-rated at a cost of roughly $12,000, according to Natalie Carrignan, director of technology for the Westport Public Schools. A full year subscription, included for now in the superintendent’s proposed budget, would be roughly $24,000.

Should the district proceed, Gaggle would monitor the Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Videos and Images of all Westport students.

In the event that a student violation is flagged, a Gaggle staff member would review to decide whether it is, in fact, a violation and what is the proper level of response. If there is an immediate threat to a student based on the violation, a designated member of the district’s staff would be notified and react to the situation. If the gaggle employee decides there is no immediate threat, the violation would be emailed to the designated member of the district’s staff and the response would be decided accordingly.

Before a final decision is reached, Palmer said she would send an email home to parents linking to tonight’s presentation. Each school’s principal will notify his or her students, and building administrators and teacher will be notified via email.

Though parents and Board of Education were generally supportive of the proposal, some did question the degree to which students’ information could be accessed.

“This seems to be a way, an added layer of safety that I think I would be in support of,” said Candace Banks, co-president of the PTA Council. “But, having said that, I’m getting some concerns already about Big Brother.”; @justinjpapp1