According to testimonies heard during a Texas House committee hearing, school districts do not appropriately inform parents of the lack of filters and uses for the devices and apps their children have access to or have been issued by their schools.

House Bill 2673, filed by State Rep. Lacey Hull (R–Houston), would establish programs, promote parents as partners in cybersecurity and online safety, and require the installation of an internet filter that blocks and prohibits obscene material.

According to Hull, the Texas Education Agency would be required to develop standards for school-issued devices.

These standards include minimizing the collection of students’ personal data, ensuring parental consent for online mental assessments, and the use of an internet filter capable of notifying administrators and parents if the student accesses inappropriate or concerning content.

The standards set forth by districts must also include the assurance of direct and informed parental consent when it comes to school-issued devices and apps.

“HB 2673 requires districts to adopt rules establishing programs, promoting parents as partners in cybersecurity and online safety and requiring the installation of an internet filter that blocks and prohibits obscene material before transferring a device to a student,” explained Hull.

Carrie Moore of Texas Education 911 testified in favor of Hull’s legislation.

HB 2673 would prevent possible loopholes parents may not currently see or understand when it comes to devices that are sent home with children, Moore testified.

“I’m very concerned that our kids are coming home with devices,” said Moore. “But any bill that would enable more transparency that would enable parents to feel more secure about what is coming home with their kids and how it’s going to be used, and how what will prevent the kids from finding the loopholes in there, is just fantastic.”

According to Moore, schools are “grilling” children constantly over their mental, physical, and emotional states, requiring them to take multiple comprehensive tests on those matters.

“We’re asking these kids over and over again how they feel and why they feel it,” said Moore. “We’re expecting them to be adults on this topic. I don’t know very many kids that can quite assess if they are feeling more empathetic today than they were yesterday. They’re gonna go, ‘Happy, happy, happy, sad, happy, happy, happy, sad.’”

During his testimony, Lee Spiller, executive director of Citizens Commission on Human Rights in Texas, said, “Some of these apps use keywords and some of them claim to use AI or machine learning to tell whether a kid is depressed, self-harming, using drugs, et cetera. If people are going to assess you that way, you want to know about it, [and] your parents want to know about it.”

As an example, Spiller referenced an emoji-based app called Rhithm, which assesses children on their mental and emotional state. Rhithm is used across Texas at multiple schools, Spiller said.

However, Rhithm also triggers alerts if kids give a “wrong answer,” or a “sad face” or an “angry face” over a certain number of times. According to Spiller, it also has activities for the kids to do to deal with potential mental issues found in the their answers.

“In other words, to us, it looks like a mental health app,” said Spiller. “You’re doing an assessment and then you’re getting activities to address what was found. Well, by golly, you ought to have parental consent for that. Plain and simple. And yet some school districts didn’t. In some school districts, the answer was what’s called an acceptable use policy, which is this thing that parents sign, giving general permission to use the school’s technology resources. That’s not good enough. This bill takes care of that.”

Faith Colson, a Texas mom, testified in support of Hull’s legislation.

Colson worked with Texas Sen. Tan Parker (R–Flower Mound) last year to support House Bill 3489, which required that TEA develop health and safety guidelines for digital devices by the next school year. Parker’s legislation passed last session.

However, according to Colson, “More help is needed to keep moderation and safety for devices. HB 2673 builds on HB 3489 and calls out privacy as well as parent input.”

“The bottom line is that there is a false sense of security that having a filter on the device and an adult in the room is enough to protect privacy and safety, and it’s not,” said Colson. “There are simply too many things for a teacher to keep track of with so many kids on internet-enabled devices, when the goal of education is to educate, not to police the internet. By invoking parent partnership and further safety and privacy protocols, HB 2673 helps to address these shortcomings so that the benefits of these devices are not outweighed by the current risks.”

Austin Griesinger, the policy director of Texas Family Project, told Texas Scorecard his organization sees this legislation as “necessary to the protection of Texas children.”

“Electronic devices provided to students should absolutely have safeguards in place to ensure students are not able to access pornographic material,” said Griesinger.

HB 2673 was left pending in committee.

Soli Rice

A journalist for Texas Scorecard, Soli is a new Texan with a passion for politics. She's excited to hone her writing skills and help spread truth to Texans.