Cyberbullying: Should schools police students' social media accounts?

The Glendale, Calif., school district hired a firm to monitor students' social media accounts and prevent cyberbullying. Critics say it could chill student speech and lead to unintended legal consequences.

Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/AP
Young Cho (l.) and Christopher Chung (r.) are photographed in front of the Herbert Hoover High School in Glendale, Calif., on Sept. 12. The Glendale Unified School District, in a bid to quell bullying at its schools, hired a company last month to monitor the social media accounts of its middle- and high school students.

The Glendale Unified School District in Glendale, Calif., finds itself under a national spotlight over its hiring of a firm to monitor its 14,000 students’ social media accounts.

In the wake of the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick in Florida last Tuesday – reportedly after receiving taunting text messages from at least 15 girls – many cyberbullying experts are applauding the Glendale decision. But others say the Glendale Unified School District (GUSD), though well-meaning, is entering dangerous moral and legal ground. At least one online petition is out to stop it.

“We think it’s been working very well,” Superintendent Dick Sheehan told CNN of the policy. After two teens in the area committed suicide last year, including one in the Glendale district, the GUSD started a pilot program for 9,000 students in its three high schools. It went so well that they formally introduced it this year as school opened Sept. 12. “It’s designed around student safety and making sure kids are protected,” Mr. Sheehan said.

The GUSD is paying the Hermosa Beach-based firm, Geo Listening, $40,500 to track public postings, searching for such topics as possible truancy, drug use, suicide threats, bullying, and other violence. Only the postings of students aged 13 and older are monitored, because that is the legal age at which parental permission isn’t required.

But in hosts of local broadcasts and newspaper articles, parents and students are being interviewed who don’t think it is right.

“It’s students’ expression of their own thoughts and feelings to their friends,” said Young Cho, a 16-year-old junior at Herbert Hoover High School, to the Los Angeles Times. “For the school to intrude in that area – I understand they can do it, but I don’t think it's right.”

And some cyberbullying experts also feel it is not wise.

“Should a school take on the responsibility of overseeing social media or their students? No. The liability is far greater than the school, or their attorneys, understand,” said Robert Fitzgerald, a cybersecurity expert. “They run the risk of policing the Internet for these kids – a 16-year-old student dating an 18-year-old student, for example – throw in sexual activity and risque posts – could lead to charges of statutory rape. And if the school does not report it, does the youngsters family have a claim against the school?”

Some experts say they would applaud the idea only if it is tweaked slightly.

“This is a great idea but only if it’s paired with an educational component; otherwise, it’s just being police, which is a bad idea,” says Katie LeClerc Greer, former director of Internet safety for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and intelligence analyst for the Massachusetts State Police. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ms. Greer's name.]

She says the educational component would involve explaining to students how putting too much personal information online – personal pictures, travel intentions, party plans, dating details – is a bad idea. She and others say the task for this company to sort out what is worth reporting and what is not is gargantuan and runs into a huge gray area.

“I hope they have hired and consulted a very able legal team, because even though their hearts are in the right place, they are possibly biting off more than they can chew,” says Ms. Greer.

According to a recent poll from 1World Online, 59 percent of people believe that schools should not be allowed to monitor students’ social media accounts to ensure safety. And research from the Cyberbullying Research Center found that about half of young people have experienced some form of cyberbullying, and 10 to 20 percent experience it regularly.

“We know this is on the increase because the devices and apps that kids use is growing exponentially,” says Tom Jacobs, author of “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated.”

“These kids live with these devices and they are their lifelines to everything," he adds. Because of this, a lot of the behavior goes unreported, because young people don’t want to risk their parents taking away their lifelines, shutting off their cellphones or shutting their Facebook and Twitter accounts, he adds.

But while some parents have complained that this practice amounts to government spying into private lives, legal analysts say the district is well within its rights to pursue the idea.

“The US Supreme Court has ruled that there are very distinct protections of privacy under the Constitution, but it has also ruled that privacy rights have to be balanced with the school’s responsibility to maintain a safe campus,” says Areva Martin, founding and managing partner of Martin & Martin, LLP, a Los Angeles-based law firm. “So they are trying to address the kinds of violent speech that can lead students to suicide.”

But just knowing that monitoring is taking place will change the very nature of the communications, some critics say.

“The response is understandable, but students will feel their speech chilled knowing that the school district is watching,” says Anupam Chander, director of the California International Law Center, at the University of California, Davis.

Others say a growing number of cyberbullying incidents point to the need for greater involvement by both parents and schools and that perhaps a multipronged strategy might be better.

“Most parents don’t have a clue about how these social media sites and apps work, so some training there would be in order,” says Suzanne Bogdan, education chair for Fisher & Phillips, one of the nation's largest labor and employment firms, who advises teachers, administrators and parents how to deal with cyberbullying.

There are a growing number of apps that are not public, she notes. After Tricia Norman, Rebecca Sedwick’s mother moved her daughter out of school, and changed her cell phone, Rebecca signed on to new applications –, Kik and Voxer – which restarted the messaging and bullying she had experienced at her first school. Ms. Norman had complained to school authorities about the cyberbullying and said that the school hadn't done enough to help.

At a Sept. 12 press conference, Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Fla., read a list of the taunts to Sedwick: “Why are you still alive?” “You’re ugly” “Can u die please?”

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