The issue of student safety is front and center in the minds of school leaders across the country. Whether in K12 or Higher Ed, we are all aware of the tragedies that have occurred across the country over the last decade. School districts have become creative and aggressive in dealing with these concerns by monitoring activity on school-owned devices that could be cause for concern such as bullying, threats of violence and drug use. Another way of addressing some of the pressing safety issues in schools that has become popular is social media monitoring. The idea behind social media monitoring is to track what individuals employed by or attending your school say about students or your district. Typically, geo-fencing is utilized to narrow down the physical geographic area that allows companies to monitor this social media activity. This monitoring happens without the knowledge of the end user and is intended to provide school districts with early warnings related to matters that could impact school safety. The emerging problem with this approach is that it is limited to public-facing information and has raised concerns over privacy and the effectiveness of monitoring.
Growing concern among privacy advocates centers around the notion that unknowingly targeting an individual’s social media posts on their own personal devices in a geographical area invades the privacy of that individual. When someone uses his or her phone or other personal device to express him or herself on social media, there are currently companies that have unfettered access to individual information. How this information is used can be invasive and considered limiting on free speech.
One way to address safety in schools as it relates to the monitoring of social media is making a distinction between personal devices and school-owned devices. When we send our kids to school each day, we expect that they will obey the rules and emerge from their schools with both an academic and social education that can take them to college or directly into the workforce. What students post on social media can impact their acceptance to college and/or compromise future employment opportunities with companies concerned about how an employee represents themselves on social media.
Students using school provided technology have a responsibility to conduct themselves in ways that are in compliance with school policy. Computers are provided for educational purposes and students are expected to use these devices for learning. However, school leaders understand that “kids will be kids” and the use of social media and gaming sites is part of the every day life of students.
Students use chat systems built into applications like Google, Face Book and Twitter. These chat systems are where sexual predators, bullies and conversations about suicide, drugs and violence occur and cannot be picked up on by solely monitoring the public-facing side of social media. There have been incidents of students threatening others and to harm themselves in Word documents, Google Docs, Chat Systems and other non-public-facing communications systems. Parents and school leaders are concerned about the well being of children. If a student threatens to harm him or herself or is depressed, they are often reluctant to discuss it with anyone because they don’t know where to turn. Depression is a very real concern and some have openly asked how it contributes to unsafe situations in school.
From its earliest days, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) required schools that receive Federal e-Rate funding to filter and block inappropriate content from being accessed while in school. This filtering process does not track activity on social media; it just blocks Internet access if that is the policy of the district. But in recent years, CIPA was expanded to require school districts to train students on proper Internet etiquette and, more importantly, to monitor how students use district provided devices. There are several companies (@LearnSafe included) that make such monitoring easier for schools and as a result have helped many students be protected from predatory grooming, access to pornography and served as an early warning system for students who are threatening others or are a threat to harm them selves.
The issues of privacy and effectiveness of monitoring social media should be evaluated before any district takes such action. The safest and most defensible measure to is to monitor school-owned devices in their entirety rather than only social media like Facebook and Twitter. There is no expectation of privacy on these devices; real harm can be detected and CIPA requires it.