Lawrence school board renews contract for AI student monitoring software, increases student meal prices

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As part of a busy annual organizational meeting Monday, Lawrence school board members approved a renewal of Gaggle, the district’s student surveillance software, and a 10-cent increase to student meal prices. They also voted on the next board president and vice president.

Gaggle uses artificial intelligence to sift through information tied to the district’s Google Workspace — including Gmail, Drive and other products — and flag content it deems a safety risk, such as allusions to self-harm, depression, drug use and violence.

During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, Lawrence High School journalism teacher Barb Tholen spoke against renewing Gaggle, calling the software “deeply problematic.” One of its main charges is to detect suicidal ideations, but Tholen said it actually disrupts students’ ability to be vulnerable.

Last year, Tholen said, a student had “poured their heart out” in emails to a trusted teacher — but those emails never went to the teacher and instead reached a district administrator.

“Imagine the person that student trusted most with news of their struggles never knowing to reach back out to them with words of comfort,” Tholen said. “… We need students to share concerns openly with us — that saves lives.” 

LHS student journalists in April convinced the district to remove their files from Gaggle’s reach, arguing that it violated their freedom of press rights. They said they’re still concerned, however, about the software’s threat to all students’ privacy.

Board member Shannon Kimball said staff and students don’t have an expectation of privacy when using district-issued devices, according to board policy.

“I would like to see us go ahead and move this forward tonight so that we can move on from this conversation and continue to work with our students and our staff around understanding what the processes are and what the obligations are so that everybody has a clear understanding of roles and rights and responsibilities as it relates to privacy and other issues within the use of district resources and facilities,” Kimball said.

The Budget, the student news publication of LHS, reported in February that the software had flagged and removed files from student artists’ devices, claiming child nudity was detected. Tholen told the board Monday that Gaggle had pulled images and sent them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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Jones said there’s room for the district to improve the way the district handles those situations with students.

Carole Cadue-Blackwood was the sole dissenting voter as well as the person who pulled the item from the board’s consent agenda for a discussion before voting. She said art is an outlet that she doesn’t want students to shy away from.

“My concern is stifling creativity,” Cadue-Blackwood said.

Mental Health Coordinator Kiley Luckett told the board that the district over time has become more equipped to navigate the software. The company responds to concerns and can make changes, she said.

“I will say, in our work with Gaggle, they’ve been very responsive when we’ve emailed and said, ‘You know, it’s flagging these things, and we don’t think it should,’” Luckett said. “And they request that, they say, ‘Anytime there’s something that you feel is off, let us know, so we can use that as part of our training.’”

The district entered into a contract with Gaggle in August for $162,286, split over three years. Board members on Monday voted 6-1 to continue with the second of three years, costing the district a little more than one-third of the three-year total — $53,411, according to an invoice.

Meal price increases

Lunch costs for students who are not in the free and reduced-price lunch program have increased to $3 for elementary, $3.20 for middle and $3.25 for high schools. Last year, lunch rates were set at $2.90, $3.10 and $3.15. 

Full-price breakfasts for elementary, middle and high school students $2, $2.10 and $2.15 as opposed to last year’s $1.90, $2 and $2.05, respectively.

Reduced-price lunches will remain at 40 cents, and reduced-price breakfasts will remain at 30 cents.

The board on Monday voted 7-0 to unanimously approve the increases, and maintain reduced-price meal and adult meal costs, which it also did last year. Adult lunch prices last year increased to $5 from $4.65 and breakfast prices increased to $3 from $2.55; those rates will remain the same this fall.

Additionally, the board unanimously approved some student fee increases.

The monthly fee for pre-K students to enroll at New York Montessori School will increase $20, to $560 from $540.

The fee for replacing technology that’s been intentionally damaged is increasing — for iPads, to $50 from $40; for MacBooks, to $90 from $75; for Microsoft Surface products, to $50 from $40; and for hotspots, to $15 from $10. Instrument repair fees would increase to 15% of the instrument’s value from 10%. No other changes to standard enrollment fees for 2024-25 have been changed.

Board leadership

Board members voted to keep the same president and welcome a new vice president.

Returning board President Kelly Jones agreed to extend her service for a second consecutive year to “lesson transitions and account for continuity.” Superintendent Anthony Lewis is preparing to leave the district in August, and the board is searching to fill his position.

The board voted 6-1 to elect GR Gordon-Ross to be vice president. Board member Yolanda Franklin voted for Carole Cadue-Blackwood, the other board member who was nominated. Cadue-Blackwood was also nominated for the president role but expressed interest in pursuing VP.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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