Should Schools Spy On Students’ Online Speech?

Technology has become cheaper, easier to use and more powerful — for both kids and those in charge of delivering their education, which means it has become relatively easy for school administrators to monitor their students outside school.

This mainly includes social media sites — Facebook, Twitter, etc. — where students turn for interaction and support that cannot be provided by parents or teachers. At times, students let their frustrations be known on social sites regarding school or outbursts about specific teachers.

Educators now have more opportunities to monitor students around the clock as students complain, taunt and sometimes cry out for help on social media. Services to filter and glean what students do on social networks are being offered by several companies, including automated tools to comb through off-campus postings for signs of danger. Whether school officials should or legally can punish children for their online, off-campus speech is an undefined area of the law.

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 offline as reported by Somini Senguta of The New York Times. Educators find themselves needing to balance students’ free speech rights against the dangers children can get into at school and sometimes with the law because of what they say in posts on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

However, courts have started to intervene. In September, a federal appeals court in Nevada sided with school officials who suspended a high school sophomore for sending threatening messages on Myspace in which he said he would shoot classmates. In another case 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, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which represents public school superintendents.

According to Domenech, crafting an approach to the surveillance of students’ online speech 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?” he posed.

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 according to educators. But tracking students on social media comes with its own risks — a principal in Missouri resigned last year after accusations that she had spied on students using a fake Facebook account.

“It was our children she was monitoring,” said a perplexed twitter user, after the news broke last year, without, she added, “authorization” from children or parents.

Geo Listening, a technology company was paid in August by officials in Glendale, a suburb in Southern California, 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.

However, students slammed the efforts on Twitter saying officials at the Glendale Unified School District would not understand what they tweeted most of the time and that they would rather hire a high school slang analyst.

“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.

Another technology company in the monitoring fray is Salt Lake City-based CompuGuardian, which lets school officials monitor whether students were researching topics like how to build bombs or discussing anorexia. His customers only include five schools, but he, too, is optimistic about market growth.

“It helps you boil down to what students are having what problems,” he said. “And then you can drill down.”

Nevertheless, when protecting children from each other or from themselves turns into chilling free speech remains the big question.