Warily, Teachers Go Online to Monitor Students ; Schools in U.S. Begin to Examine the Behavior of Pupils on Social Media

By Sengupta, Somini | International Herald Tribune, October 30, 2013 | Go to article overview

Warily, Teachers Go Online to Monitor Students ; Schools in U.S. Begin to Examine the Behavior of Pupils on Social Media


Sengupta, Somini, International Herald Tribune


Some educators are turning to technology to help students who complain, taunt and sometimes cry out for help on social media.

For years, a school principal's job was to make sure students were not creating a ruckus in the hallways or smoking in the bathroom. Vigilance ended at the schoolhouse gates.

Now, as students complain, taunt and sometimes cry out for help on social media, educators have more opportunities to monitor students around the clock. And some schools are turning to technology to help them. Several companies offer services to filter and glean what students do on school networks; a few now offer automated tools to comb through off-campus postings for signs of danger. For school officials, this raises new questions about whether they should -- or legally can -- discipline children for their online outbursts.

The problem has taken on new urgency with the case of a 12-year- old Florida girl who committed suicide after classmates relentlessly bullied her online and off-line.

Two girls -- 12 and 14 years old -- who the authorities contend were her chief tormentors were arrested this month after one posted a Facebook comment about her death.

Educators find themselves needing to balance students' rights of free speech against the dangers children can get into at school and sometimes with the law because of what they say in posts on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Courts have started to weigh in.

In September, a federal appeals court in Nevada, for instance, sided with school officials who had suspended a high school sophomore for threatening, through messages on Myspace, to shoot classmates. In 2011, an Indiana court ruled that school officials had violated the Constitution when they disciplined students for posting pictures on Facebook of themselves at a slumber party, posing with rainbow-colored lollipops shaped like phalluses.

"It is a concern and in some cases, a major problem for school districts," said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which represents public school superintendents.

Surveillance of students' online speech, he said, can be cumbersome and confusing. "Is this something that a student has the right to do, or is this something that flies against the rules and regulations of a district?"

Interviews with educators suggest that surveillance of students off campus is still mostly done the old-fashioned way, by relying on students to report trouble or following students on social networks. Tracking students on social media comes with its own risks: One principal in Missouri resigned last year after accusations that she had snooped on students using a fake Facebook account. "It was our children she was monitoring," said one Twitter user who identified herself as Judy Rayford after the news broke last year, without, she added, "authorization" from children or parents.

But technology is catching on.

In August, officials in Glendale, a suburb in Southern California, paid Geo Listening, a technology company, to comb through the social network posts of children in the district. The company said its service was not to pry, but to help the district, Glendale Unified, protect its students after suicides by teenagers in the area.

Students mocked the effort on Twitter, saying officials at G.U.S.D., the Glendale Unified School District, would not "even understand what I tweet most of the time, they should hire a high school slang analyst #shoutout2GUSD."

"We should be monitoring gusd instead," one Twitter user wrote after an instructor was arrested on charges of sexual abuse; the instructor pleaded not guilty.

Chris Frydrych, the chief executive of Geo Listening, based in Hermosa Beach, also in Southern California, declined to explain how his company's technology worked, except to say that it was "a sprinkling of technology and a whole lot of human capital." He said Geo Listening looked for keywords and sentiments on posts that could be viewed publicly. …

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