Amidst the questions and concerns over social media, one school district is acting boldly. The Glendale Unified School District (just outside Los Angeles) has hired a firm to monitor the social media accounts of its students. According to the Los Angeles Times:
The district last year hired Hermosa Beach-based Geo Listening to piece together the cyber tidbits of its 14,000 or so middle and high school students. The effort, for which the district is paying $40,500, is aimed at unearthing the earliest signs of bullying and self-harm.Advertisement
The company's computers scour an untold number of public posts by students on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example. Analysts are alerted to terms that suggest suicidal thoughts, bullying, vandalism and even the use of obscenities, among other things. When they find posts they think should spur an intervention or anything that violates schools' student codes of conduct, the company alerts the campus.
A CNN story on the matter says that Geo Listening reviews "social media postings of Glendale students aged 13 and older -- the age at which parental permission isn't required for the school's contracted monitoring -- and sends a daily report to principals on which students' comments could be causes for concern . . ." Geo does not try to unlock private posts. The firm only only searches what is public.
What do they look for? According to Chris Frydrych, CEO of Geo Listenting, Geo analysts "stay abreast of the symbols, phonetic spellings, abbreviations, initials and other code-speak that youths type on social media." Moreover:
Hate, for example, could be spelled "h8," and teens may refer to drugs with such words as "red," "rolling," and "blunt," Frydrych said.
In another example, Frydrych's firm learned how youths use drugs such as liquid hashish through vaporizers, or "vapes," which are devices like electronic cigarettes that allow for inhalation without creating smoke, Frydrych said.
Teachers may not be aware that students are dipping their mouths into their jacket in order to take a hit off their "vapor pen," Frydrych said.
Frydrych's team will be able to spot whether the student or a classmate posts a public message about that activity -- with a message stating, for example, "can't believe a kid is getting high in geography right now, sucking on their vape," Frydrych said.
Geo Listening "also monitors whether students are talking about drug use, cutting class or violence. The firm even ascertains whether pupils are using their smartphone during class time. . . ."
Not surprisingly, the district's move is controversial. Parents and others have objected to the monitoring and consider it a violation of students' privacy. But it’s important to understand what motivated the decision. It is not because principals and teachers want to see thousands of status updates or Instagram uploads. The reasons are much graver. The school district wants the safety of its students. The Glendale School District hired Geo to conduct a pilot program last spring in the wake of two student suicides. The pilot program subsequently resulted in "a successful intervention with a student 'who was speaking of ending his life' on his social media . . . ."
I understand the concerns over privacy, but what is the alternative? Social media has its benefits, but it also has its savagery. It's a lawless territory where students roam freely. They will encounter the worst of human nature and be enticed to respond. Some resist, but many do not. Who will look out for them? Who will come to the aid of the victims? Who will stand for virtue and responsiblity? We know that parents increasingly don't track -- or even know about -- their children's online excursions.
So we have this territory of incivility and no accountability. Are schools to stay passive, responding only when it's too late, only when the worst case scenario, festering for months, has arrived? If you're a parent and your son or daughter is talking about harming him- or herself online, wouldn't you want to know? If a student is threatening students or school officials, shouldn't the school district be able to find out and take protective measures?
If the answer to these questions is "no," I am at a loss to know why.