The Juneau School District is attempting to provide parents, students and school board members more information about a new computer monitoring program that was installed this school year without prior notification.
JSD informed parents via email about Bark — software which monitors for “harmful” content including school shooters, self-harm, pornography and cyber bullying — after it was installed on JSD computers earlier this school year. The program was tested for a few weeks, then went live on Sept. 13. An email was sent out Sept. 15 jointly from Bark and JSD’s IT department after the program was fully brought online.
The decision to use the program immediately prompted concern from both parents and students over student privacy and data collection, spurring testimony at a recent Juneau Board of Education meeting and debate on public comments on Facebook.
“It would be an understatement to say I’m upset about the decision to use Bark in Juneau schools,” Juneau-Douglas High School teacher Amy Lloyd said during the Oct. 8 meeting. Lloyd is also a parent of two high schoolers, and one of five students, parents and former school board members who spoke out publicly to raise concerns about Bark.
Many parents said they didn’t see that initial email from JSD and were upset about the lack of communication about Bark.
After the initial email was sent out, JSD left it up to individual principals to determine how to best disseminate more information about Bark. Some principals emailed their students about it, while other principals let teachers tell students about it during administrative time.
In hindsight, JSD Chief of Staff Kristen Bartlett said in an interview Friday, a more organized and consistent delivery of the notice with more information would have saved many concerns from the beginning.
“A little more lead time for staff would have been helpful so they understood what the program was and what the program wasn’t,” Bartlett said.
To try to address concerns, JSD sent out a second email about the program this week, with a Frequently Asked Questions sheet about the limits and reach of the software.
JSD Superintendent Dr. Bridget Weiss also sat down with students from JDHS for an hour Friday morning to talk about the program in more depth and hear any concerns and comments. She also offered to go meet with any teachers or students that had questions, Bartlett said.
Recently re-elected Board of Education member Emil Mackey said he too was concerned about the program’s debut in the district.
“I am currently supportive of Bark but am disappointed with the roll-out,” he said via email. “Some in the community were clearly blindsided by the product and frustrated by spam emails generated by Bark.”
For some, however, it’s not how they’re doing it so much as what they’re doing.
What it’s supposed to do
Bark is a private company based in California that sells monitoring software for parents to place on their children’s phones, and offers the monitoring service for free to schools. According to its website, more than 1,300 schools districts in the nation use the software.
The FAQ sheet dissemented by JSD asserted that other programs to perform a similar monitoring role would cost the school district roughly $35,000 a year, whereas Bark is free.
In Alaska, it’s unclear how many school districts are using it.
“I don’t have a number, but there are many districts in the state that are using a system, not necessarily Bark,” Weiss told the Empire. IT personnel at Anchorage and Fairbanks school districts told the Empire they do not use Bark.
The software is intended to monitor the words students use on school computers, and flag any harmful words for a school administrator to view and act upon, if necessary. When a word is flagged, alerts go out to a number of Juneau school officials, including the superintendent and the child’s principal.
Since it’s been used in Juneau, there’s already been a huge number of flags issued by the system, most of which has been false alerts. Weiss said. Weiss said there had been roughly 500 false alerts so far, and roughly a dozen alerts that required action. She said that there had been several flags about self-harm where school officials then took the student aside to talk.
The software is set up to learn and adapt with time so there aren’t so many false alerts.
“It’s a lot of profanity, I’ll tell you that,” Chris Murray, IT officer for the Juneau School District, said in an interview. “We have a teacher whose name is Razor, so, you can imagine.”
He added, “It’s always a balance. You can’t ever win 100 percent, but you do the best of your ability. A human never looks at it unless it’s a severe alert and then it goes to school administrators.”
Murray said school authorities can’t use the software to read emails or documents that haven’t been flagged, though the school also utilizes programs that could be used to view the screens of students remotely, or to see where student internet traffic is going. It also doesn’t monitor teacher accounts, unless those teachers send an email to students, in which case, it can read the email, Murray said.
Some alerts determined by the program to be more serious receive immediate human attention.
“Let’s say a child uploads a picture of a loaded gun to a Google Doc or sends a message and says “I’m going to shoot up the school in 30 minutes. For liability reasons, there’s a human involved,” Bark Chief Parent Officer Titania Jordan told the Empire in an interview Friday.
Receiving an alert of an imminent shooting or a suicidal ideation, Jordan said, Bark will immediately contact the relevant school authorities or law enforcement officials.
“We don’t stop until someone in the right seat of action can take action,” Jordan said.
Jordan says that for most alerts, it’ll go from the Bark plugin to school administrators without human intervention. For some alerts, however, the alerts will travel much quicker and go to humans within Bark for further action.
“What we have had happen, disgustingly and horribly, is childhood sexual abuse, not just from predators, but from family members,” Jordan said.
In these cases, they’ll go to law enforcement officials and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to assess the situation and handle it.
Data and privacy
Some parents shared concerns about who was viewing the alerts and the data, and whether children who raised flags would be tracked. An FAQ sent out by JSD addressed this issue, saying that no alerts were saved on the student records.
The data stored by Bark’s servers has a rolling overwrite with a 15-day latency, Jordan said.
“It’s a huge dataset. It’s expensive to store that on our servers,” Jordan said. “We do not want your data. We want you to have your data.”
A report by the Common Sense, a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on information and technology issues for children and students, scored Bark 65/100 on Common Sense’s evaluation of their data security and respect for the privacy of children. The report raised concerns about Bark modifying advertising based on collected data.
Jordan asserted that Bark is not selling data or using it to tailor advertising. The parental monitoring side of their business supports both halves, the parental and school sides.
“We adhere to COPA (Child Online Protection Act),” Jordan said. “We are not looking to monetize the data or sell it to anyone.”
Murray also addressed other concerns raised at the school board meeting, including data storage and possible leaks.
“If they notified us they were selling out, I’d instantly disconnect on our side and insist that they delete the data,” Murray said. “We take data security extremely seriously over here.”
The data is encrypted within Amazon’s cloud servers, which have not had a breach of their encryption, Murray said. Some companies have experienced data breaches through weak passwords onto their stored data, Murray said, but the servers as a whole remain inviolate.
Murray added that Bark has access to extremely limited information, and that other programs and third-party organizations, such as Powerschool, which is used to record grades and schedules as well as contact information about parents, or the companies used for nursing, cafeteria services, or school photography, also have a certain amount of student information.
No opt out
According to the FAQ, students cannot opt out of the Bark monitoring.
Bark specifically monitors the Google Suite of programs, including Docs, Slides and Sheets. Google Suite is deeply integrated in the district’s curriculum and workflow, especially for classes like English.
It’s extremely difficult to opt out of Google Suite itself, according the FAQ. Inability to use the Google Suite means that students won’t have access to school Wi-Fi and printers, or the ability to function in the same way as other students.
“As of today, I believe this is an all-in or all-out decision,” Mackey said. “This is also not an easy decision because both privacy and school safety are very important. I think whatever decision we make needs to really consider the impacts on each and make the best decision we can going forward.”
With no way to effectively disengage from Google Suite and remain in the normal Juneau school system, Kathleen Nyssen — the parent of a Juneau high schooler — said she was looking at alternatives for her child, including homeschooling through the Raven Homeschool system.
“The main issue I have is this is a for-profit company with a captive audience and a bunch of scared parents,” she said in an interview Friday. “I think we were overeager in accepting this.”
Forrest Davis, a junior at JDHS, said during the school board meeting that Bark is infringing on student rights by not having an opt-out option.
“Opt out means that students can’t use school computers, crippling them in school,” he said.
The issue will likely rear its head at the next school board meeting, scheduled for Nov. 12. Several board members requested that it be placed on the agenda, including Mackey, board member Kevin Allen and newly elected member Deedie Sorensen.
“This reminds me a lot of the Patriot Act,” Sorensen said during the Oct. 8 meeting. “I don’t want to be Big Brother.”
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.