Imagine this: A 13-year-old student is called into their school counselor’s office. There they find their counselor and their parents waiting for them, concerned looks on their faces. “We know you think you’re trans,” one of them says. The student is horrified. They’ve never shared these private thoughts with anyone, channeling their feelings and questions into their personal diary on their laptop. Had their parents been reading their diary? No. Their laptop was given to them by their school, and it contains software that flags any student writing that uses, among other terms, “queer” or “transgender.” The company forwarded the flagged content to a school counselor. And under a recently passed “Don’t Say Gay” bill in the student’s state, the counselor was required to report the writing to the student’s parents, outing the student. Outing the student before they were ready to share their identity, or even sure of it themselves, puts that student at risk of their family disowning them, or worse.
This story is hypothetical, but it’s realistic. Last year, a student in Minneapolis was outed when school administrators contacted their parents after a surveillance software flagged LGBTQ keywords in their writing, and schools’ abilities to screen students’ writings are becoming more and more invasive.* The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a seismic shift in the use of surveillance software by schools. Simultaneously, a growing reactionary backlash against school policies affirming and supporting LGBTQ students is resulting in legislation, lawsuits, and pressure campaigns to implement anti-LGBTQ policies. These coinciding events threaten to turn schools into a surveillance apparatus uniquely suited to outing and marginalizing at-risk LGBTQ students.
As schools scrambled to shift to remote learning, they hastily signed contracts with educational technology vendors without understanding the implications on students’ privacy. A recent survey by the Center for Democracy and Technology showed that 81 percent of teachers report their schools are now using surveillance software to monitor students. One particular software used by schools around the country is Gaggle, which surveils school computers and student accounts. The use of Gaggle has resulted in the constant monitoring of students through their Gmail and Microsoft Office accounts, even when at home using personal devices. Gaggle even monitors in real time the content being written by students on Google Docs.
Gaggle flags the terms “lesbian,” “gay,” and “transgender” as sexual content that is reported to human reviewers at the company to determine if it should be passed along to school staff. Gaggle’s CEO, Jeff Patterson, defended the policy of flagging LGBTQ content as a means to protect students from bullying.
There are real potential harms to this kind of surveillance. A student writing that they might be queer or trans in a personal diary in a Google Doc on their school Google account—whether on their school or personal computer—could then result in that writing being reported to school administrators and outing the student.
While off-campus surveillance of students’ personal devices presents a grave threat to all students’ privacy, low-income students unable to afford personal devices feel the brunt of these surveillance technologies. Prior to the pandemic, 43 percent of schools had device distribution programs; now, 86 percent do. We know that school-issued devices often feature more invasive surveillance software and internet content filters. But despite this rapid increase, there is no readily available information on how schools monitor their students or with what software. It’s often up to journalists and nonprofit advocacy organizations to uncover this information through public information requests that take months or longer.
Whether on school-issued devices or downloaded onto students’ own, these software tools do not disclose the source code of their software nor how they prioritize student information for review and reporting, leaving parents, students, and even school administrators ignorant of what the privacy concerns even are before they can begin working for mitigation. But what is known is not good. A.I. automation tools, such as those used by Gaggle, are rife with broken promises about accuracy. They often have fundamental racial and gender biases. A consequence of using these tools to monitor students’ online content is that they will disproportionately affect people of color and marginalized groups.
This surveillance technology becomes even more harmful when combined with recent efforts to require the outing of students, such as the now-withdrawn amendment to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would have required school staff to out children within six weeks of discovering the information, regardless of concerns about the child’s health and safety. Even worse, Texas has declared that providing gender-affirming care to trans children is child abuse. Legislation like this is part of a massive reactionary backlash directed at school boards for everything from mask mandates to so-called critical race theory, or CRT.
There is concerted effort by anti-LGBTQ organizations and politicians to ride the coattails of the anti-CRT movement. They seek to reverse gender-affirming policies and implement the forced outing of students to their parents by school staff. Recently, a group of anonymous parents in New Hampshire requested that the Hanover school board “repeal or substantially amend” its trans-affirming policy adopted in 2016 and require parental notification if a student reveals they are trans to a teacher or school counselor.
In Florida, anti-LGBTQ forces are trying more direct measures. Over the past few months, two lawsuits were filed in Florida by the Child & Parental Rights Campaign, or CPR-C, seeking to implement forced outing through litigation. These lawsuits seek to require school staff to out students by reporting to parents if a student has gender dysphoria or is questioning their gender. CPR-C is a thinly veiled anti-trans organization affiliated with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group. The CPR-C executive director has been on record comparing LBGTQ people to “cockroaches.”
Republican state legislators have increasingly picked up on this trend and have introduced several bills targeting school officials who come to learn of a student’s transgender status. Several anti-trans bills, such as Alabama’s S.B. 184 and Arizona’s H.B. 2161, outlaw school staff, including mental health counselors, withholding a trans student’s gender identity from their parents.
It is not hard to see how schools requiring the forced outing of queer and trans students to their parents could be a threat to their well-being and safety. Given the recent moves by Texas, it could even mean trans children being separated from their parents. It bears repeating that LGBTQ youth, especially those of color, have the highest rates of youth homelessness among any demographic, often due to family rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The confluence of increased school surveillance with the movement to require school officials to out LGBTQ students presents a perilous future for queer and trans youth. If these lawsuits and bills succeed, trans youth would not be able to turn to trusted adults at their schools to confide their feelings without fear that their potentially homophobic or transphobic parents will be notified. Add surveillance technologies, and they may not even be able to safely commit these private thoughts to writing.
Ironically, many of the purveyors of surveillance software proclaim that their intentions are to reduce student suicide and self-harm. Yet the software contains the potential to expose the privacy of trans students, who are at the greatest risk of suicide. Queer and trans youth face a future of increasing paranoia and isolation. School is supposed to be a safe place for students, where they can access supportive staff and resources. Instead, schools may increasingly become a nightmare of surveillance used for the purposes of harming LGBTQ students.
Correction, Feb. 24, 2022: This piece originally conflated two separate incidents that happened to two separate LGBTQ students. The erroneous reference has been removed.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.