Surveillance of students in public schools: how much is too much?

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A school district amid the vast suburban sprawl of Los Angeles has hired a self-described social network monitoring service to stalk its students on internet-based platforms including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.

The Glendale Unified School District already piloted the invasive tactic in three schools last year in conjunction with the company, called Geo Listening, reports CBS Los Angeles. For this year, the district decided to expand the program to include the social media postings of 13,000 students across eight middle schools and high schools.

It’s all for the teen and preteen students’ own good, you understand—to protect them.

“The whole purpose is student safety,” Glendale Unified Superintendent Dick Sheehan told CBS Los Angeles. “Basically, it just monitors for keywords where if a student is considering harming themselves, harming someone else.”

By spying on students’ computer use, Sheehan explained, school officials will have access to crucial information as quickly as possible.

Each day, explains the Glendale News-Press, Geo Listening will produce a report for Glendale administrators that catalogs social network posts by frequency and by topics such as cyber-bullying, drug abuse, vandalism and skipping school. For good measure, there are other hopelessly vague categories including hate and despair.

The monitoring service will cost the district $40,500 this year.

The school district claims it was able to intercede to help a student contemplating suicide thanks to last year’s pilot program.

“The administrator was contacted at the school site. Then we made contact with the student, the student’s family and we got them the appropriate help,” Sheehan boasted to CBS Los Angeles.

“We do monitor on and off campus, but we do pay attention during school hours,” the superintendent also noted. “We do pay more attention to the school computers.”

Not surprisingly, the CEO of Geo Listening, Chris Frydrych, also favors the program.

“We have provided information to school districts, which has led to numerous successful interventions on behalf of students that intended self-harm, suicide, bullying, truancy, substance abuse, and vandalism. We monitor only public posts to social networks. We do not monitor privatized pages, SMS, MMS, email, phone calls, voicemails,” he told the CBS affiliate.

The station found a parent and student duo which supports the district’s snooping.

“If there was a red flag, if he’s talking about stress at school or he can’t take it anymore, if I won’t be able to deal with it, I would want somebody to come in,” concerned mother Felicia Johnson reflected.

Yalda T. Uhls, a researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA, told the News-Press that she appreciated the district’s attempts to stop cyber-bullying. At the same time, she suggested that the monitoring could cause students to mistrust adults who conduct around-the-clock digital surveillance.

“As a parent, I find it very big brother-ish,” Uhls said.

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Eric Owens