by Asra Q. Nomani & Erika Sanzi
As U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland sat down for his first hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, denying a conflict of interest in his decision to investigate parents for “domestic terrorism,” there is a mother in the quiet suburb of Annandale, N.J., who found his answers lacking. And she has questions she wants asked at Garland’s hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee this Wednesday.
On a recent Saturday night, Caroline Licwinko, a mother of three, a law school student and the coach to her daughter’s cheerleading squad, sat in front of her laptop and tapped three words into an internet search engine: “Panorama. Survey. Results.”
Within three clicks, Licwinko was in an online “dashboard” created by Panorama Education Inc., a government contractor hired by school districts to gauge their students’ “social and emotional learning.” However, Panorama digs far deeper than whether students might feel depressed or lonely, raising serious public policy questions. It asks all kinds of prying questions, including gender and sexual orientation and views on racial issues. Licwinko and her husband, Eric, became concerned in September when their sons’ school, North Hunterdon High School, told parents they were sending students a Panorama survey. Although they opted their sons out, as parents are ostensibly allowed to do, their sons were sent the survey anyway. What’s more, a school official confirmed to them, the private information of all students – including whether they receive special education services and free and reduced meals – was sent across four state lines to Panorama, based in Boston. Last week, Panorama refused to give the Licwinkos the data the company received on their children.
“They are data mining and psychologically profiling our kids. The questions they are asking are absolutely inappropriate in a school setting,” says Licwinko. “Schools have sold our children’s privacy to a data analytics company that is tracking attendance, behavior, and family’s financial status.”
Raising questions at the House hearing about a possible conflict of interest, Garland’s son-in-law is a co-founder of Panorama, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other big-name venture capitalists from Big Tech are investors.
School districts defend the decision to hire companies like Panorama, claiming that addressing students’ “social and emotional learning” helps identify struggling kids through another sales product, the “Early Warning System,” that gives students a rating based on algorithms. But concerned parents see the surveys as fishing expeditions that violate privacy and give activist school boards cover to infuse curricula with divisive ideology, from “queer theory” to critical race theory, which teaches that society’s ills must be viewed primarily through the lens of race.
The private information of students that is being exploited is startling. In Licwinko’s search, Portland Public Schools popped up from Oregon. Panorama surveyed students, teachers, and parents in 2019 in 102 schools in the school district. Clicking on “Background Questions” at Alliance High School at Meek Campus, Licwinko saw there were 15 respondents in ninth and tenth grades, and five students responded they were a “Girl / Woman.” Nine said they were “Boy / Man.” One student responded, “Nonbinary.”
To a question, “Are you transgender?” Fourteen said, “No, I am not transgender.” One did not respond.
Next, she read the answers to the question: “How do you describe your sexual orientation?”
Nine students said, “Heterosexual / Straight.” Zero students said “Lesbian,” “Bisexual / Pansexual,” “Queer,” or “Questioning / not sure.” One student said, “Gay.” She also learned students’ feelings about a “Sense of Belonging.”
This data collection isn’t limited to students. Licwinko discovered that 4,191 parents in Portland Public Schools said they were “Heterosexual / Straight,” and 16 parents said they were “Questioning / not sure.” Of the teachers and staff, 67 said they were “Bisexual / Pansexual.”
This mom’s discoveries are just the tip of the iceberg, offering a glimpse of how agenda-driven companies like Panorama are data mining and exploiting America’s children for profit.
Over the past four months, at Parents Defending Education, an advocacy group formed earlier this year to give parents a voice in these matters, we filed 207 requests with public school systems under the Freedom of Information Act and other laws, identifying 122 consultants in a new Consultant Report Card we have published today, with 249 contracts that add up to $19,575,169.45 spent for consultants who teach lessons like, “Defining the ‘N’ word,” including to “3-5 years old” kids, according to a copy of the contract. Earlier this month, we sent a letter to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, ranking members of the committee, requesting a hearing on Big Tech’s data mining of America’s children.
One of the biggest contractors is Panorama, a company started in 2013 by two then-Yale undergraduates. Today, they boast they are in 23,000 schools and have statewide contracts in nine states (including Hawaii and Iowa) and the entire District of Columbia. Parents like Licwinko are very concerned Panorama skirt federal and state student privacy laws, including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
For example, in Fairfax County, Va., the fine print in the Panorama contract gives new powers for company staff as “school officials.” This contract ought to be considered a clear violation of privacy laws protecting children, especially the strictest laws protecting children under the age of 13. Panorama and Portland Public Schools didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Across the country, parents have been complaining to school boards about the intrusive surveys their children are getting. In Arlington, Va., last week, a father learned that his school district and Panorama only seek “passive parent consent.”
“The data mining of America’s kids should be a national scandal,” says Jennifer McWilliams, a former teacher in Frankton, Ind., and mother investigating the semantic game of “social and emotional learning” and “equity” used as a Trojan horse for consultants with innocuous names like Pacific Educational Group Inc. and Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. Some, like CASEL, are nonprofits that operate like for-profit companies, with high-profile funders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
In early September, a northern Virginia mother tipped us off to the contract, now worth $2.4 million, that Fairfax County Public Schools signed with Panorama. “Our children = lab rats,” she wrote. Mom Tiffany McCaslin soon learned the school system had sent her daughter’s personal data to Panorama even though she opted her out of the survey. “It’s criminal,” says McCaslin. Indeed, we’ve now learned some children were given the survey even after their parents submitted opt-out forms.
The next month, at the alleged behest of the White House, facing tough political battles stoked by frustrated parents, including the Virginia governor’s race, the National Association of School Boards sent a letter to President Joe Biden, equating protests at school board meetings – carried out largely parents – to “domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” U.S. Attorney General Garland outraged many parents by marshaling the FBI to investigate them.
In New Jersey, Licwinko’s jaw dropped when she heard that Garland’s son-in-law Alexander Tanner is a co-founder of Panorama. She wasn’t satisfied with Garland’s answer, “I don’t know,” when asked if Justice Department officials met with White House and school board officials before his memo was written. In fact, we have learned that school board association staff were speaking to White House officials for “several weeks,” according to an internal email. Further, Licwinko wasn’t convinced by Garland’s argument: “This memorandum does not relate to the financial interests of anyone.”
She wants a hearing on the data mining of students and Garland’s apparent conflict of interest. Now, she has learned another Panorama co-founder, Aaron Feuer, the CEO, is the son of Los Angeles City’s elected attorney, Michael Feuer, who is embroiled in a contracting scandal.
Her daughter’s drawings of unicorns on her office wall, Licwinko is following the data. On her desk, she has copies of federal and state privacy laws. She runs two nonprofits helping vulnerable children. She is unrelenting. “I will not stop,” she says, “until we end this exploitation of our children.”
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Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and vice president of strategy and investigations at Parents Defending Education, where Erika Sanzi, a former public school teacher, is director of outreach.
Photo “Phones” by Richard Leeming. CC BY-SA 2.0.