As the Juneau School District responds to online monitoring concerns, student questions remain

The Juneau School District posted information about Bark for Schools on its homepage, as it appears here on Oct. 31, 2019, including FAQs and an informational video produced by Bark. (KTOO screenshot)

This fall, the Juneau School District began using a third-party service to monitor emails and messages sent on school accounts, hoping to increase student safety.

Students and parents have raised concerns about privacy and data control. The district has made adjustments, but there’s still plenty of confusion.

The first time Toby Minick heard about it, he was at school. He’s a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.

“I think it was probably in calculus class, which is my first class of the day,” he said. “And a lot of people were kind of, like, murmuring and talking about it.”

Minick’s classmates were talking about Bark for Schools. Provided by a tech monitoring company called Bark, it’s a service the Juneau School District started using this fall to monitor what passes through student accounts. It screens for mentions of violence, self-harm, drug use, sexual content and cyberbullying — flagging messages for school administrators to review.

Parents can sign up to receive those alerts, but they’ll only get them right away if a message is flagged outside of school hours. Otherwise, they’ll receive them in weekly updates on their students’ accounts.

The district’s goal in using Bark for Schools is student safety, but many were unhappy to learn about the service. A handful of students, parents and teachers — and one outgoing member of the Juneau School District Board of Education, Steve Whitney — shared their concerns at the Oct. 8 school board meeting. Most pointed to a lack of communication about exactly what Bark for Schools is and what it does.

Since then, the district has shared more information on its website and directly with families. But weeks later, students like Minick still have questions.

“Until we get answers, I’m super against it. And probably when we get answers, I’ll still be super against it. It just seems like an invasion of privacy,” said Minick.

The school district sees things a little differently.

Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss on Aug. 6, 2018. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

“We have no desire to monitor anything private. We are monitoring an academic environment that we are providing,” said Juneau schools Superintendent Bridget Weiss.

Many students and parents still aren’t sure about Bark’s reach.

According to the company and the Juneau School District, Bark only monitors messages sent from — or to — school-issued email addresses and Gmail chat, as well as anything stored in student Google Drive folders or posted in Google Classroom.

Bark does monitor those accounts when a student uses them on a personal phone or computer, but it does not monitor anything else on the device. It doesn’t track internet searches, and it has nothing to do with school Wi-Fi networks.

Weiss said if a student talks about an unsafe situation on a school platform, administrators should be able to respond. She said they treat the alerts just as they would if a teacher or parent overheard something concerning and reported it.

The district has always had the ability — and a legal responsibility under the Children’s Internet Protection Act — to monitor school platforms. But with 2,500 students, Weiss said the district didn’t have an effective way to do it.

“What this is allowing us to do is to have a shield of protection for students that we didn’t have the manpower — would never have. It would be impossible to do a literal monitoring by a human being in the same way,” said Weiss.

For some parents and students, that is their biggest concern: that the monitoring is being done by a third-party company.

Minick shares that reservation.

“It is weird that our schools are monitoring us, but I feel like that’s more acceptable to me than if a company is taking our data or scanning our data and that kind of stuff,” Minick said. “I trust my school more than I trust this ethereal other company, Bark, that I don’t know anything about.”

Bark doesn’t make any money off Bark for Schools, at least not directly. It provides the free service to over 1,500 school districts in the country. According to the company’s website, its motivation was the Parkland school shooting. Through that partnership, Bark hopes to build trust and interest in its main product: a service that parents — not schools — can buy to monitor their kids’ personal messages and social media accounts.

Another complaint raised by parents at the October school board meeting was the influx of advertising for Bark’s parent product sent to parent email addresses since the service’s implementation. In response, the school district has requested Bark to stop sending solicitations, unless a parent has signed up to receive Bark notifications.

Students at the school board meeting also questioned how Bark might use the data it collects. In a phone interview with KTOO, Bark’s Chief Parent Officer Titania Jordan said data is never shared with other companies.

“We are not looking to monetize or sell your children’s personal data,” Jordan said. “Our goal as a company is to protect your family and empower you with the knowledge to protect your family.”

Jordan encouraged anyone with questions or concerns about Bark to contact the company directly at help@bark.us.

Normally, Bark deletes all data 30 days after it’s collected. The Juneau School District requested that period be reduced to 15 days.

Jordan said Bark tries to provide tools to keep kids safe at a time when technology is changing rapidly

“This is a whole new landscape, right? Kids have never had this sort of access before in human history. And schools and parents have never had to school or parent kids in this sort of environment ever,” said Jordan.

Minick, 17, said growing up in that environment doesn’t mean his peers take any of it for granted.

“I don’t think a lot of people have that opinion that, like, our privacy in a new, digitalized age is something that we should assume is already, you know, forfeit or whatever,” Minick said. “We should know where our information is going, who has it, what they’re doing with it.”

In response to concerns from students and parents, Weiss said the district is providing options.

Families have three choices. One is to stick with the status quo and use all school-provided platforms, monitored by Bark. Another is to completely opt out of school platforms — but a lot of classes rely on online tools, and it’s not clear how students and teachers will have to adjust. The third option is restricted access: Students will be able to use Google Classroom and Google Docs, but they won’t have a school-issued email address or Gmail chat. However, any messages sent to school accounts will still be monitored by Bark.

Families interested in restricted access or opting out should contact their principal.

District administrators hope they can answer remaining questions about Bark and move forward with the school year. But district chief of staff Kristin Bartlett said she’s pleased to see students engaged and thinking critically.

“All of the questions that the students have been asking are the questions that we have taught them to ask — about their privacy, and their footprint and how their information is being used. So the fact that they’re asking these questions is exactly what we would want them to do,” said Bartlett.

Bark won’t officially be on the agenda of the next school board meeting — it’s not an action item the board can vote on — but Weiss will give an update.

Members of the public can speak about Bark or any other topic during the public comment period. The board meets on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at 6 p.m. in the library of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.