Students, parents raise deep concerns about monitoring software at school board meeting

Students, parents raise deep concerns about monitoring software at school board meeting

Board of Education also welcomed new members, elected new officers

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the new Pederson Hill subdivision would be within the Mendenhall River school boundary. It would actually be the Riverbend Elementary School boundary. This article has been updated to reflect the change.

New and returning members to the Juneau Board of Education played host to worried students, parents, and former board members, who spoke up during the public comments to raise concerns about Bark, the monitoring software present in the school district’s computers.

Emil Mackey and Deedie Sorensen, elected last week to the board of education, were sworn in tonight. Mackey has served on the board previously. Dan DeBartolo and Steve Whitney departed from the board, thanking them for the opportunity and saying that they left it in good hands with its new members.

Emil Mackey and Deedie Sorensen are sworn in as members of the Juneau Board of Education following last week’s election on Oct. 8, 2019. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Emil Mackey and Deedie Sorensen are sworn in as members of the Juneau Board of Education following last week’s election on Oct. 8, 2019. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Whitney made his first appearance before the board as a non-member minutes later, speaking in the public comments period of the meeting about the Bark monitoring software installed on the Juneau school district’s computers.

“You need to protect students but you also need to protect civil rights,” Whitney said. “They are collecting information and they are a for-profit corporation.”

According to Bark’s website, the software uses advanced machine learning and statistical analysis to flag potential trouble phrases and alert school authorities. The website also claims that it can discern between exasperation and potentially harmful ideas.

Forrest Davis, a junior at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, also raised concerns about potential issues with the software and the company, worried about potential misuse of data and an open ended contract with the company monitoring the software, providing alerts, and hosting the data.

“I am here to testify against using Bark in school computers,” Davis said. “I agree it’s important to keep students safe from themselves and others, but this is reactionary and not preventionary.”

[Superintendent’s contract extended to 2023]

Davis cited the novel “1984” and concerns about overreach in surveillance in his comments to the board, as well as a 10-14 hour delay in alerts arriving with administrators kneecapping the effectiveness of the system.

Parents and other students also testified, talking about the lack of communication about the rollout of the program and the inability to opt not to use it. The opt-out, according to Davis, involved not using the school computers at all, hamstringing a student’s ability to function in school. A number of school board members also expressed concern, including Mackey, Sorensen and Kevin Allen.

“It’s a new strategy for us,” said school superintendent Dr. Bridget Weiss. “It’s a tool to manage for profanity, self harm comments, weapons, cyberbullying, threats of harm.”

While the software wasn’t used when two students were arrested for discussing a school shooting at Floyd Dryden Middle School earlier this year, Weiss defended its utility.

“If that threat had been made by chat or email, we wouldn’t have needed to rely on a student,” Weiss said. “It falls within our continued efforts to ensure the safety of students and faculty.”

Pederson Hill Zoning

A motion designating the Pederson Hill subdivision within the Riverbend Elementary School school boundary and not Auke Bay Elementary School was also passed.

“This would allow families to use the existing trail system to walk to school,” said Kristen Bartlett, Juneau school district chief of staff. “The intention is to change the boundary line before any lots are sold.”

There were also elections for officer positions on the school board. Brian Holst was re-elected president, Dr. Elizabeth Siddon was elected vice president, and Paul Kelly elected clerk, all unanimously.


• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 523-2271 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.


International students from five countries studying abroad in Juneau schools are introduced to the Juneau Board of Education on Oct. 8, 2019. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

International students from five countries studying abroad in Juneau schools are introduced to the Juneau Board of Education on Oct. 8, 2019. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

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