Do school districts need help with monitoring students’ social media behaviors to prevent bullying, threats, acts of violence and self-harm?  Several districts believe so.  Following a pilot program, Glendale Unified School District in Glendale, California recently hired Geo Listening to monitor and report on the cyber-activity of  over 14,000 middle and high school students.

According to Geo Listening’s website, their mission is to “provide more timely and relevant information to school administrators so they can better intervene in the lives of children.”  The company’s monitoring service analyzes and reports on the social media activity of students from their public posts.  Geo Listening then provides a daily report of conduct such as bullying, cyber-bullying, despair, hate, harm to self or others, crime, vandalism, substance/drug abuse, and truancy.  What to do with the monitored information is then left to the discretion of the school district.  Geo Listening simply hunts and gathers for the data.  Despite this, the program has raised some concerns over privacy and free speech rights by students.

Yet, school districts do not provide a list of students to Geo Listening.  Rather, the company uses “deductive reasoning to link public accounts” to the students.  LA Times, Glendale district says social media monitoring is for student safety, (Sept. 14, 2013).  Geo Listening declined to articulate what that means and how that is accomplished.  However, if the school district does not provide student names to Geo Listening, or reveal private confidential information in the monitoring process, then the district is not likely violating any privacy laws.  Indeed, many employers hire companies to review public social media posts of applicants or employees.  (See More Risks to Job Applicants with Questionable Social Media History – where we talked about Social Intelligence, a company which performs social media background checks on applicants for employers).   

Geo Listening also contends it does not violate student privacy – it neither hacks into students’ accounts nor peeks into private communications or emails.   According to Geo Listening, the students themselves make the information public – the company simply monitors where and what kids communicate.  “Parents and school district personnel – they are not able to effectively listen to the conversation where it’s happening now,”  Geo Listening CEO told CNN, California school district hires firm to monitor students’ social media, (Sept. 15, 2013).  Geo Listening believes its service bridges this communications gap without violating any privacy or free speech rights.    

In the end, despite the criticisms and questions – has monitoring Glendale’s students helped?  Superintendent Richard Sheehan certainly believes that the monitoring will assist the district in providing a safer environment for students.  Recently, the district was able to intervene on behalf of a student who had expressed a desire on social media to end his life, and to date, the district has not commenced any disciplinary action for conduct reported under the monitoring program – even against a student who posted a photo of himself holding what turned out to be a fake gun.  Sheehan’s staff simply talked with the student’s parents about the dangers of posting those types of photos online.    See, CNN, California school district hires firm to monitor students’ social media, (Sept. 15, 2013).

What do you think?  Should school districts look at all student behavior – in and out of the classroom?  As we have discussed previously, social media platforms are public venues.  Information disclosed is no different than carrying on a conversation in a public place.  Regardless, when, how and why we look at that information becomes an important question to ask.  How would this apply in the employment context?  Should employers be monitoring the communications of its employees online – and what information would employers be looking at?  As always, we welcome your input.