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)

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of July 20

Here’s what to expect this week.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, July 18, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Buttons on display at a campaign event Monday, July 8, 2024, in Juneau, urge supporters to vote against Ballot Measure 2, the repeal of Alaska’s current election system. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Ranked-choice repeal measure awaits signature count after Alaska judge’s ruling

Signatures must be recounted after judge disqualifies almost 3,000 names, citing state law violations.

The offices of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development in Juneau are seen on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska demographers predict population drop, a switch from prior forecasts

For decades, state officials have forecast major population rises, but those haven’t come to pass.

Neil Steininger, former director of the state Office of Management and Budget, testifies before the House Finance Committee at the Alaska State Capitol in January of 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Neil Steininger, former budget director for Gov. Dunleavy, seeking District 1 Juneau Assembly seat

Downtown resident unopposed so far for open seat; deadline to file for local races is Monday.

A mother bear and a cub try to get into a trash can on a downtown street on July 2, 2024. Two male bears were euthanized in a different part of downtown Juneau on Wednesday because they were acting aggressively near garbage cans, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Two black bears in downtown Juneau euthanized due to aggressive behavior around people

Exposed garbage, people insistent on approaching bears contribute to situation, official says

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, July 17, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Cars arrive at Juneau International Airport on Thursday, July 11, 2024. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Juneau seems to have avoided major disruptions following global technology-related outage

911 centers, hospitals, airport, and public safety and emergency management agencies are operating.

People take photos of local dignitaries during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Teal Street Center on Thursday afternoon. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Teal Street Center celebrates with ribbon-cutting a year after social agencies begin providing services

Nine organizations providing legal, disability, counseling and other help open under one roof.

Most Read