67 districts in North Carolina are using a program that monitors student email accounts

The program is called ‘Gaggle’ and lawmakers allocated $5M in federal funding for its use

RALEIGH — In March of this year, Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS) was one of the first districts in North Carolina to begin using an app that monitors student email accounts to identify and flag “inappropriate words and images” with the purpose to “alert school officials immediately if there is an imminent threat to a student.”

According to the Gaggle website, 440,000 students across 67 of the state’s 115 districts are being monitored by the program. The website also boasts that it flagged 23,000 student safety incidents for district officials, that four in 10 incidents reported were for self-harm or suicide, and that “113 student lives were saved.”

“Gaggle will monitor students’ Google Drive and Outlook Email for concerns around self-harm and suicide, harassment, drugs and alcohol, violence towards others, nudity and sexual content,” according to WCPSS communications on the program.

At the onset of the 2021-22 school year, WCPSS handed out Google Chromebooks to every student in the district. That means around 157,673 students are being monitored using Gaggle.

According to WCPSS Communications Director Lisa Luten, the Gaggle “is not intended for staff,” and their devices are not subject to the same monitoring as students.

“Possible Student Situations” taken from WCPSS Gaggle announcement email to parents

According to a Gaggle report, North Carolina has seen a marked increase in the majority of the possible student situations between the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 school years.

WCPSS’ announcement of Gaggle implementation applied already existing rules on content related to student devices and Google products used in the district.  However, WCPSS warned parents and students that if a student connected a cell phone or other personal device to their district-provided Google Drive account, they “may be held accountable for inappropriate material per WCPSS Board Policy 3225: Technology Responsible Use and the Student Code of Conduct.”

The information sent out to parents about Gaggle says the program “uses a safety management response rubric” to categorize “all recorded items according to the nature and severity of the content in question.”  Categories include “violation” and “questionable content.” Gaggle’s Safety Management Team then determines where items fall in that rubric and “takes appropriate action.”

North State Journal asked WCPSS who had access to the data being pulled by Gaggle and Luten said “Only the response team at the school and district level response team.” Luten also said the data is stored in a cloud and “content is stored for 30 days.”

“Anything flagged or alerted is stored for one year,” said Luten in an email to North State Journal. “The exception: Gaggle has a legal obligation to delete child pornography after 90 days. It is also auto reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”

Additionally, Luten indicated that Gaggle sends email notifications to district officials and there is a “Gaggle Dashboard” those officials have access to.

The use of Gaggle adds an additional layer to track student interactions on top of the already state board of education contracted app. In May 2019, former state Superintendent Mark Johnson announced a contract with Sandy Hook Promise to provide a statewide “Say Something Anonymous Reporting System” for reporting incidents like bullying and threats.

The Say Something app came with a hefty five-year term contract of over $3.1 million with around $600,000 to paid in the first year. Scheduled cost increases for the app put the second year at $553,728, third at $570,340, fourth at $587,450, and fifth at $605,074. Additional annual “Crisis Center fees” of $50,000-a-year licensing was part of the contract.

Gaggle also has a large dollar figure attached to its use.

The General Assembly made appropriations from COVID-19 relief funds for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) to make Gaggle and its products available to school districts.

In its most recently enacted budget, state lawmakers allocated $5 million in federal relief dollars for the program that districts can apply for to implement Gaggle.

HB 1105, The Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0, signed into law by Cooper on Sept. 4, 2020, gave NCDPI $1 million to make Gaggle safety management products available to districts “to enhance student safety while providing remote instruction in response to COVID-19.”

NCDPI’s 2019-2022 manual tracking COVID relief fund allotments detail the breakdown of monitoring costs by district average daily membership (ADM) size in the contract with Gaggle. For Google Email and Drive the cost is $2.50/ADM, while it costs $1.25/ADM for Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts and Microsoft O365 or Google Drive ONLY.

About A.P. Dillon 1313 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_