Schools are cracking down on apps that let parents listen in on students

Travis County

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Parents have been using apps and GPS devices to keep track of their kids for years, but now a local school district wants to prohibit parents from using one feature while their students are in school.

Lake Travis ISD’s board will vote Wednesday on a policy change to prevent parents from using devices to listen in to their kids while they’re at school.

It’s a legal issue, the district told KXAN. Parents who are discreetly listening in to their kids might also be listening in on other children, and in addition to raising privacy concerns, the practice could violate federal wiretapping laws, said Amber King, LTISD’s legal counsel.

Austin ISD doesn’t have a policy specifically barring listening in through tracking apps or devices, but the district told KXAN it has similar legal concerns because Texas law states at least one party in a coversation has to consent to being recorded.

“If the student and teacher in the conversation are unaware of the recording or if other conversations were captured, this could be a violation of the law,” an AISD spokesperson said.

The language in Lake Travis ISD’s proposed policy change would require parents to get permission from the district before sending kids to school with devices that allow them to listen in, and it would prohibit them from using that function while their students are on campus or at a school-sponsored event.

“We’re not asking that [tracking devices] not be used at all,” King said.

That’s welcome news to Mackenzie Irick Milks, a mom of 12-year-old twins at Lake Travis Middle School and writer for the parenting site Austin Moms Blog. She knows the value of being able to see where her sons are through the GPS tracker that came with their phones, especially in their rural Briarcliff neighborhood.

“There are lakes and reservoirs and places around here that I just need to know if they’re making those decisions,” she said. “And it’s not like I call them and say, ‘Get away from there.’ It’s a conversation that we usually have when we get back.”

She doesn’t use a device or app to listen in to their surroundings, but some parents do want to go beyond just seeing location.

Dr. Christine Julien, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, will publish a paper next month with results from a survey she conducted in which she asked Austin-area parents what they did and did not want in a tracker for their elementary-school-age children.

Using a five-point scale, about 20% of parents who responded said being able to listen in on a device was either “extremely important” or “very important.” In contrast, though, 35% said the feature was “not at all important.”

“We generally trust our kids,” Julien explained. “Most kids are good kids, and I don’t need to hear everything that’s going on as long as I know that my kid is safe.”

That might explain why the most important thing parents wanted from a tracker, according to Julien’s data, is the ability to alert parents of an emergency. 

She understands the legal concerns Lake Travis ISD has about the “listen in” feature on some devices and believes issues surrounding tracking kids need to become part of the broader conversation about technology and its use in everyday life.

“I think it’s going to have to be a balance,” Julien said. “We’re going to get more and more capable in terms of tracking our kids, and I think we need to better study and understand what the capabilities are and what those impacts are on the kids themselves.”

For the most part, Irick Milks relies on personal relationships with neighbors and other parents to keep an eye on her kids when they’re not at home, like her parents used to. But she still likes the safety net that GPS technology provides.

“What we’re looking for is safety,” she said. “We’re not looking for an invasion of privacy.”

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