Advocates warn kids’ privacy at risk in GOP gun violence bill

Aaron Schwartz

A long-awaited GOP proposal to combat mass shootings has been receiving pushback from education groups and children’s privacy advocates over language they say could result in the “over-surveillance” of minors.

After months of deliberations, including meetings with victims and law enforcement officials in communities wracked by deadly shootings, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a Republican-backed “bill to help prevent mass shootings” on Wednesday.

The Restoring, Enhancing, Strengthening, and Promoting Our Nation’s Safety Efforts (Response) Act, which has several Republican co-sponsors, bundles some of the top GOP proposals to combat mass shootings into one bill. It would expand resources for mental health treatment, facilitate the creation of “behavioral intervention teams” to monitor students exhibiting disturbing behavior and offer new tools for law enforcement.

{mosads}The bill’s school safety proposals are a response to years of school shootings perpetrated by young people described as isolated and troubled.

But advocates have raised red flags over the Response Act’s requirement that schools begin monitoring their computer networks to “detect [the] online activities of minors who are at risk of committing self-harm or extreme violence against others.”

Under Cornyn’s legislation, nearly all federally funded schools in the U.S. would be required to install software to surveil students’ online activities, potentially including their emails and searches, in order to flag “violent” or alarming content.

The proposal would significantly expand the Children’s Internet Protection Act, a 2000 law that is mostly interpreted today as blocking children from looking up pornography on school computers.

Privacy experts and education groups, many of which have resisted similar efforts at the state level, say that level of social media and network surveillance can discourage children from speaking their minds online and could disproportionately result in punishment against children of color, who already face higher rates of punishment in school.

“This is all very frightening,” an education policy consultant, who has been tracking the legislation, told The Hill. “There’s no real research, or even anecdotal information, to back up the idea … that following everything [kids] do online is really a way to determine that they’re going to be violent.”

Sources told The Hill they have been pressing Cornyn’s office over the issue, pointing out there is little evidence that increasing online monitoring can effectively reduce violence in schools.

The conflict highlights the high-stakes trade-offs between children’s privacy and school safety in a country facing a seemingly constant stream of school shootings. “I think these people are well-meaning,” said one source who has been lobbying against the legislation. “I don’t think there’s any intent to do harm to kids.”

A previous draft of the bill, circulated in September and obtained by The Hill, would have asked schools to monitor children’s online activity “to protect against physical harm,” language that advocates panned as overly broad.

The version of the legislation introduced this week specifies that schools would be asked to operate a “technology protection measure” aimed at identifying children likely to self-harm or commit “extreme” violence, a more specific mandate that whittles down the number of offenses.

Still, Cornyn’s office has been rebuked as they sought endorsements for the bill from several education groups and advocates, according to multiple sources.

“We applaud Senator Cornyn for taking action on this critically important issue and introducing the RESPONSE Act,” Leslie Boggs, the president of the National PTA, said in a statement to The Hill.

“While we have concerns with the bill as it is currently written, we look forward to working with him and his staff to ensure evidence-based best practices for protecting students are used, the school to prison pipeline is not increased, students are not discouraged from seeking mental health and counseling support and that students online activities are not over-monitored,” she said.

Social media monitoring has spiked dramatically over the past five years as the country works to get ahead of school violence. According to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, 63 school districts across the country purchased social media monitoring software last year, a significant increase from six districts in 2013.

The efforts have been a windfall for the top software companies in the monitoring market, which have made millions of dollars as state and local governments ask schools to draw up more defenses against potential school shootings.

Critics of Cornyn’s bill say those monitoring programs don’t appear to have made a difference, instead resulting in more work for school administrators and less privacy for students.

“Schools that have chosen to purchase automated monitoring software are inundated with alerts flagging concerning behavior,” one privacy expert concerned about the bill said, “[and] some have even seen more than one hundred alerts per day.”

As it stands, the Response Act has received endorsements from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Treatment Advocacy Center, and a range of law enforcement organizations. And the office is continuing outreach to education and children’s privacy groups to solicit their feedback about potential amendments.

“I spent time with families and victims in El Paso and Midland-Odessa following those tragedies and pledged to work with my Senate colleagues on real solutions,” Cornyn said in a statement on Wednesday. “I urge my colleagues to come together once again to pass the Response Act to help prevent mass shootings and put a stop to this senseless loss of life.”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) in a statement said the bill “takes a step in the right direction towards making sure our schools are safe and well-equipped.” She noted that Congress should work toward “solutions” to violence while “protecting our constitutional rights.”

Cornyn’s bill emerges as the GOP has found itself in a difficult position following the multitude of mass shootings this year, which have drawn new calls for gun control legislation and weapons bans that Republicans are unlikely to get behind.

There have been almost 300 mass shootings in the U.S. since the beginning of 2019, including several widely publicized attacks with high casualties. In August alone, there were three mass shootings resulting in dozens of deaths and even more injuries.

Talks between a group of senators and the White House about potential mass shooting legislation have largely stalled amid the launch of an impeachment inquiry last month. But Cornyn’s bill has opened up the conversation again.

The co-sponsors include Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

But children’s advocates say the bill needs to take other approaches to identifying children in need of help.

“There are a lot of kids who are suffering these days and there’s a lot of trauma out there,” one education advocacy source said. “We need to think of ways to find these kids that have problems and address those problems rather than escalating the situation by putting them under a microscope in the way that some of this language might do.”

Tags John Cornyn Joni Ernst Martha McSally Shelley Moore Capito Thom Tillis Tim Scott

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