An elite Waikato school has looked at installing an app on its students’ phones and other devices that would give teachers the ability to control and monitor the social media the students access.
St Peter’s School, in Cambridge, has been looking to roll out the Family Zone app, which allows adults to monitor online use and block an entire category of apps – including different types of social media or gaming apps.
But a backlash from pupils and their parents has seen the school – which describes itself as “one of New Zealand’s leading independent, Anglican, co-educational, day and boarding preparatory and secondary schools” – temporarily back down on the move.
The school, which teaches from year 7 to year 13, initially announced in its April newsletter that it planned to use the Family Zone app to ensure digital safety of its students, first to boarders and progressively throughout the rest of the school.
Its focus was ensuring students in its care were safe online, the school said.
But after a petition with more than 200 signatures and complaints from parents and students, who raised several concerns and questions, mainly around privacy, the roll-out has been delayed from term two until at least term three.
A member of the school community said they felt it was a breach of privacy because for boarders such a move meant the school could restrict students’ access to apps at all hours of the day.
Another raised concerns about whether the school would be tracking their child and therefore their entire family after school and at the weekends.
The app would be required to be installed on any devices students brought into the school and would be monitored only while they were in the school’s care.
A St Peter’s spokesperson said the school still believed it was a vital tool in keeping students safe in the classroom and the boarding house, but it would not implement the app’s use until the school had time to address any concerns.
The school acknowledged it should have better communicated how the technology would work with parents and students to avoid their jumping to conclusions.
“For those in our boarding care we are in the role of parent during their time at school and it is essential that we manage any inappropriate use of devices. The implementation of the app is to ensure they are not accessing inappropriate sites or where they may be at risk.”
The app would, for example, help to stop boarding students’ gaming at night, but did not allow the school to view students’ personal messages, data or content. Instead, it would just monitor the sites visited.
All personal information collected from students would be done fairly and would not intrude to an unreasonable extent upon the personal affairs of the individual concerned, in accordance with the Privacy Act, the spokesperson said.
Linewize NZ Education director Saunil Hagler, whose firm runs the Family Zone app, said the company worked with more than 350 schools in New Zealand to promote cyber safety.
It was up to each school in agreement with parents to decide how it set up the accounts because the app had the ability to manage activity, filter activity or do nothing after school.
The advantage of the Family Zone app was that it provided more cyber safety than traditional filtered school WiFi networks, which could be bypassed using mobile phones supporting 4/5G connections, Hagler said.
Katrina Casey, the Ministry of Education’s deputy secretary sector enablement and support, said schools developed their own policies that best met the needs of their students and communities, which could include use of social media during school hours.
“We expect schools to communicate very clearly with parents what their school policies are and to consult with their school communities when they update or change them,” Casey said.
“In this case, the school has proposed partnering with Family Zone who provides a cyber-safety app that manages device use both during and outside school hours. We understand the school provided students with the opportunity to give feedback and responded to this feedback by delaying the implementation of the Family Zone app, so that all members of their community could be fully informed and have the opportunity to seek answers to any issues.
“We haven’t been made aware of other schools that have decided to use the Family Zone app after consultation with their communities.”
A spokesperson for the Officer of the Privacy Commissioner said it had in the past had inquiries about two other schools using Family Zone or a similar app and was aware of others who made them a condition of their learning environment.
While it is up to a school to decide on its own policies which parents and students have to agree to in order for a child to be enrolled there, the commissioner’s office expected a privacy impact assessment to be completed if it related to using a new piece of technology to collect the personal information of its students,
“If a student or parent is concerned about the app, they could make a complaint to the school’s privacy officer. Depending on the school’s policies, there may be flexibility if a child or parent is reluctant to use the app. But that is a matter between them and the school.”
What to ask the school around its use of apps such as Family Zone:
Will the school collect my child’s personal information outside of school hours?
How can I or my child get access to the child’s personal information the school collects through its use of the Family Zone app?
Where will my child’s personal information be stored and how will it be secured?
What will be the consequences if I allow my children to use their own devices with their own data plans without using the app?
Source: Office of the Privacy Commissioner
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