Washington Schools’ Mental Health Survey Puts Student Gender and Sexuality Data at Risk
Digital mental wellness surveys could be the future of school screening, but experts warn they could expose students’ private information
In an effort to curb substance abuse and flag student mental health issues, in 2018, Washington state’s King County started giving students an unusual electronic survey.
The Check Yourself screener, which is conducted in classrooms on school-issued iPads or laptops, first displays a short disclaimer indicating that the collected information is confidential but not anonymous to the school. Students who click “I accept” are then asked a series of questions about their gender identity and who they are most likely to have a crush on, as well as their age and race. The assessment also asks about drug and alcohol use, how much sleep students get, and levels of anxiety.
When students submit the survey, their name is stripped from their responses and replaced with a unique proxy identification code in an attempt to abide by federal privacy regulations. Then the data leaves the school system.
“There are no guardrails.”
King County student data is sent to the servers of Tickit Health, a Canadian health tech startup, which built the digital screening tool. There, it can be accessed and downloaded by King County employees. Student data is analyzed by the county to gauge the students’ mental health and used to direct help to those who might be at risk for self-harm. According to plan obtained by OneZero via a public records request, the data is also used for a program evaluation by PhD researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which created the screener, to test if the screening process actually works. While the process evaluation didn’t meet the regulatory definition of research, student data is still being used to validate the screener.
Observers say the mental health data collected by these schools raises serious concerns. At a minimum, these systems create a government-owned dossier of students’ most personal information—data that is much more sensitive than exam grades and vaccination records.