Rhithm is back in the news. The Texas startup has been sold to one of four technology companies being investigated by two U.S. senators who noticed that student surveillance, emotional screenings, and intrusive surveys are quickly becoming the norm for many public school classrooms.

Rhithm’s website previously described its app as a “biopsychosocial assessment.” By definition, a BPS assessment is typically conducted by therapists and counselors at the beginning of therapy and assesses for biological, psychological, and social factors that can be contributing to a problem or problems with a client.

However, this mental assessment is being given to students by teachers who are not trained therapists or counselors. Rhithm’s ancillary services are provided to social-emotional learning purveyors such as CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning).

Shortly after the publication of my article by Texas Scorecard and letter to the Lewisville ISD school board members citing concerns about Rhithm and their illegal use of it, the company’s website changed the description of the app. Now the app assesses mental, energy, emotional, physical and social issues. It appears these are merely euphemisms for “bio-psycho-social” within a paragraph entitled “Assessment.”

A “Parent FAQ” was added to rebut my charges, including their previous description: “Rhithm’s check-in tool is not a biopsychosocial assessment, is not a mental health assessment, nor does it provide diagnostic data.” However, consider the definition of psychiatric or psychological examination in the Code of Federal Regulations about Protection of Student Privacy in Examination, Testing, and Treatment:

“(1) Psychiatric or psychological examination or test means a method of obtaining information, including a group activity, that is not directly related to academic instruction and that is designed to elicit information about attitudes, habits, traits, opinions, beliefs or feelings; and

 

“(2) Psychiatric or psychological treatment means an activity involving the planned, systematic use of methods or techniques that are not directly related to academic instruction and that is designed to affect behavioral, emotional, or attitudinal characteristics of an individual or group.”

Rhithm’s privacy policy acknowledges that children under 13 must have parental consent before using their services. Is this a reference to the federal requirement for written parental consent for children under 13 to use online services?

The federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment addresses the need for written parental consent for surveys, analyses, and evaluations about certain sensitive information including mental or psychological problems; sex behavior or attitudes; and anti-social, self-incriminating, or demeaning behavior.

Texas Education Code Sec.26.009 requires written parental consent before school district employees “(a) (1) conduct a psychological examination, test, or treatment, unless the examination, test, or treatment is required under Section 38.004 or state or federal law regarding requirements for special education.”

With the heavy emphasis on mental health programs in classrooms, parents must read all school communications carefully. Is there any mention of a screening or assessment? Is there passive or active consent? The Texas Education Agency notes, “Schools and districts have found success using passive consent and opt-out procedures to garner parent consent and student assent for universal screening procedures.” When children were required to have written parental permission (active consent) rather than simply passive consent (option to decline), participation decreased dramatically.

In the February 2022 revision of its privacy policy, Rhithm declares that student data will not be used for marketing or advertising. However, buried in the fine print, Rhithm discloses that it can share the personal student data with third parties including “parent, subsidiaries and affiliates, and investors primarily for business and operational purposes.”

Rhithm is “FERPA compliant by design, our data is all stored on dedicated FERPA and HIPPA compliant servers inside the United States.” The Family Educational and Privacy Rights Act protecting personal student data was unconstitutionally shredded a decade ago. Third parties, claiming a need for educational purposes, can access the information without prior parental consent or knowledge about how the data will be used or shared. Rhithm has used this unconstitutional method to access records of students. Despite assurances that student data are securely stored, evidence proves that even the U.S. Department of Education’s data security system is riddled with vulnerabilities.

As noted above, two U.S. senators launched an investigation into four educational technological companies regarding their use of artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithmic systems to monitor students’ online activity.

One of these companies, Securly, recently announced its acquisition of Rhithm. Securly, a K-12 “end-to-student safety and device management platform,” reports “signs of bullying, self-harm and violence across all devices.” The company openly admits that it surveils students “everywhere, every hour of the day, on every device. Securly’s unified solutions address the student digital experience from all angles, with industry-leading AI and cloud-based technologies.”

It seems round the clock surveillance of kids is a very lucrative business. Securly’s press release announcing its recent acquisition by Golden Gate Capital touts its rapid growth: “Our revenue growth has quadrupled over the last three years, and we continue to see significant unmet need in the edtech space.” Securly serves over 15,000 schools worldwide, while Rhithm serves over 1.25 million students across 27 states.

As more schools engage in surveillance, emotional screenings, or intrusive surveys, sometimes with minimal or no informed parental consent and, as children can be counseled without parental consent in certain situations, states need to pass legislation giving parents more tools to protect their fundamental rights.

This is a commentary published with the author’s permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to submission@texasscorecard.com.

Carole Hornsby Haynes

Carole Hornsby Haynes is an education policy analyst, curriculum specialist, historian, and publisher of "The Haynes Report."

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