Parents of sophomores and juniors at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools and seventh-graders at Jordan Middle School will soon have the ability to track their children's activity on district-issued Chromebook laptops.
A new filtering and monitoring software, Securly, was recently installed on the Chromebooks, which students have been taking home for both schoolwork and personal use since last fall.
The district adopted the new software in response to parent concerns, according to district staff.
In particular, parents of middle school students told the Weekly the district rolled out the take-home option without fully understanding the impact that unfettered access to technology can have on 12- and 13-year-olds and how their parents might want a way to limit at-home computer use.
But for older students worried about their privacy and security, the new software is cause for concern -- concerns Gunn and Paly students said have been compounded by a lack of clear communication with them about Securly's main features.
Securly, a cloud-based security company in San Jose, offers web filtering for K-12 school districts as well as an optional "parent portal" that allows parents to customize what their children can and can't view on school-owned devices and to monitor their children's use, including on social media, via a dashboard. Parents can also choose to receive weekly email reports on their child's activity.
The parental control that Securly offers is rare, school district Chief Technology Officer Derek Moore told the Weekly. In fact, Securly is the only company that offers it to parents rather than to school districts, Moore said. Securly does not have access to students' personal information, he added.
The cost of the new software is $11,560, according to the district.
The mother of two Jordan seventh-graders, who requested to remain anonymous, said one of her children went on a two-week "YouTube binge" after getting his Chromebook. He would tell his parents he was doing homework but would be multitasking with multiple websites open, she said.
"I thought, 'Maybe it's good, because they're learning how to handle this while they're young and binging now rather than later,'" she said. "But they're playing outside less and doing more surfing the web. There's shopping, there's sports, there's social media, potentially."
Previously, her sons had limited, timed access to a family iMac and iPad. With the Chromebooks at home, she and her husband have had to act like the police, she said.
"They just turned it on suddenly," she said. "We weren't ready to cope."
Similarly, Deborah Bennett said conflict over her son's Chromebook led to a "physical tug of war," as she and her husband had to take it away from him when they thought he was overusing it. The Chromebook complicated careful restrictions they had put in place for his at-home computer use, including password protection on the computer so he had to ask his parents to turn it on and a remote shutdown capability if he stayed on the computer beyond an established time. Otherwise, he would play games and watch videos that distracted him from homework, Bennett said.
With the Chromebook, he carried it with him everywhere, Bennett said, and would even stay away from home to use wifi at other places to avoid his parents' watchful eyes.
"It came home with no filtering solution recommended in place or any directions or anything. It just came home," she said.
Bennett was critical of the district's rollout of the Chromebooks, which she said happened with insufficient communication with parents or feasible solutions for those who might want to restrict their children's use. She and her husband ultimately followed a district recommendation to use a separate security software to block certain websites and to reconfigure their router to put parental controls in place -- solutions that were hard to figure out even for two people who work in high-tech, she said. (The other Jordan mother agreed the solutions were too difficult to figure out.)
Both mothers said Securly sounds promising -- particularly the regular report on their children's use to determine what actually might need to be restricted -- but they have received no communication from the district about it.
Students' privacy concerns
At the Jan. 24 school board meeting, Gunn junior Eli Tannenwald said that students are "very concerned" about their privacy on the Chromebooks. Poor communication from the administration about the change has led to misinformation and rumors spreading, he said.
Students were notified in January in a short message posted on Schoology, the district's online management system, that indicated there would be a change in the log-in for anyone taking home a school-issued Chromebook. The message said Securly was being added for "content filtering" and included a link to the company's website but did not provide details about the software's features.
Many students were unaware of the change until after it was implemented and are concerned the decision was made "without transparency" or student input, senior Shannon Yang told the Weekly.
"By listening to only one group, the parents, (district officials) effectively undermined their duty to those at the center of it all: students," she said. "It should also not be up to the district to decide who gets to win in a parent-child interaction."
Yang and other members of Gunn's student government body have formed a task force to gather more information about Securly's still "murky" implications for students. They are also planning a "sit-in" for the Feb. 14 school board meeting "to encourage people to share their thoughts about Securly and have an open discussion, one that was never had before implementation," Yang said.
Moore acknowledged student concerns about privacy but said school and district staff heard "loud and clear" at parent meetings on technology this fall that they wanted to be able to monitor and protect children using the school devices.
"Nobody's happy with knowing that someone's watching but the reality is, this is a school and ... we have a responsibility to keep kids safe and to use our resources appropriately," he said. "That's really all that this is. It's not an overarching monitoring and Big Brother-type thing."
The district started sending Chromebooks home with Gunn sophomores last school year as part of its participation in the federal government's "Future Ready" initiative, a national effort to transition school districts into a new era of leveraging technology at school. One component of that initiative is a 1:1 Chromebooks program, which provides a device for every student.
This year, the district expanded the access. Students who take Chromebooks home, and their parents, must first sign a classroom and home-use agreement.
The program also aims to ensure equitable access to technology for all students. Given how students now feel uncomfortable using the Chromebooks, however, some low-income students may avoid them, Yang said.
"By implementing Securly, the district is going against the purpose of the 1:1 program," she said.
Approximately 65 to 70 percent of eligible Gunn students, compared to 36 percent at Paly, are taking the laptops home, according to Moore. More Paly students bring their own devices to school, he added.
Close to 5,500 Chromebooks are in use throughout the district. At many schools, iPads and MacBooks (as well as desktop computers) are also available.
As more and more technology is integrated into Palo Alto's classrooms, the district takes increasing concerns around privacy, security and safety "very seriously," Moore said. The district vets all of its technology contracts against recently passed laws regarding protection of student data, he said.
The addition of Securly has not changed the district's primary filtering practices, which are aligned with the Children's Internet Protection Act requirement that school districts use filters to protect students from harmful or obscene online content, such as child pornography, Moore said.
The district is preparing to seek public feedback on its acceptable-use policy for school devices and is updating its student technology handbook. Students and parents can also weigh in on the handbook before any revisions are implemented for the 2017-18 school year.
On March 22, the district will host a parent-education event on technology in partnership with Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides education and advocacy to families to promote safe technology and media use for children. The event will explore the "realities families face in the digital age, including tools and resources to support families," Moore said.