The district in Glendale is paying $40,500 to a firm to monitor and report on 14,000 middle and high school students’ posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
It’s in the students’ best interests, administrators say, inasmuch as the experts are scouring tweets and posts for possible violence, drug use, bullying, truancy and suicidal threats. In administrators’ defense, the article notes, two students in the district committed suicide in the past two years. A third “who was speaking of ending his life” was saved last spring thanks to the social media monitoring pilot program that was in place at the time.
Superintendent Richard Sheehan boasts, “We were able to save a life,” adding that eyes on students’ communications provides “another avenue to open up a dialogue with parents about safety.”
But at what cost to personal liberties? Supporters of the program will argue that users of social media are posting in a public forum. But user accounts have options to make posts private and available only to approved followers. If a student has a private account, the interception of his social media posts is a violation of his fourth amendment rights.
There is also the very real problem of school administrators’ recent propensity for overstepping their bounds in the name of intervention. One needs look no further than the recent rash of responses in the wake of the Newtown shootings. Among the stories to generate headlines was one in which a Maryland sixth-grader was suspended for saying the word gun on a school bus and another in which a 5-year-old was suspended from playtime for making a toy gun out of Legos. Perhaps the final triumph was the 10-year-old who was disciplined by his school for absently biting a pizza slice into a shape that called a gun to the minds of some observers.
Chris Frydrych, CEO of Geo Listening, the company awarded the contract for snooping in Glendale, defends his work, saying that his hired “listeners” are able to provide a unique service:
Parents and school district personnel — they are not able to effectively listen to the conversation where it’s happening now. The notion about talking in class is about as old-fashioned as a Studebaker, no offense to the makers of the car.
When was the last time you sent a kid to the principal’s office for talking in class too much? I just don’t think it happens too much. So what we kept seeing is the chasm keeps building between how students communicate and the ability to tell adults about what’s going on in their lives, he said. I thought we could bridge that gap.
Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends privacy, free speech and consumer rights, sees the matter differently:
This is the government essentially hiring a contractor to stalk the social media of the kids. When the government — and public schools are part of the government — engages in any kind of line-crossing and to actually go and gather information about people away from school, that crosses a line.
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