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Glendale Unified brings real world of social media snooping to students

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POSTED September 12, 2013 12:33 a.m.

What is worse: Bullying or spying?

It is never fun to be the subject of bullying. Take it from someone who was taunted from time-to-time in school with endearing words such as “fatso,” “four-eyes,” and “klutz” accompanied by shoving and laughing.

Being bullied was much better than if I had been subjected to my personal conversations with friends being monitored 24/7 year round by school district personnel doing so because they were concerned about student safety.

That is exactly what Glendale Unified School District in Southern California is doing.

They have hired Geo Listening to serve as its own National Security Administration electronic trolling operation. The goal is to track the social media activity of all of the district’s 13,000 students around the clock, 24/7. The firm provides the district with a daily report from its trolling on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and other social media. That report groups postings by their frequency and subjects designated by Geo Listening as harm, hate, cyber-bullying, substance abuse, despair, vandalism, and truancy.

The intelligence gathering, which costs an amazingly low $40,500 a year, is defended by school district and entrepreneur alike as simply accessing public postings on the World Wide Web.

All of this is being done, according to Glendale Superintendent Dick Sheehan, to enhance student safety. It comes on the heels of a student who committed suicide reportedly due in part to cyber-bullying.

Remember the good old days when schools worried about teaching kids and were charged with their safety and conduct only when they were in school or involved in sanctioned school activities?

Wanting to prevent another suicide is admirable, but is monitoring social media what schools really should be doing?

Besides, if they believe the use of social media is so invasive and has such potential for destructive behavior why do they allow any device with Internet capability to be in the hands of students from opening to closing bell?

The door for monitoring students non-stop is being opened in the name of student safety. But what is to stop a school district from going a step further? Students have complained about teachers since the days of the one-room school house. Are all remarks posted on social media now going to be used to identify those who make such statements as “problem students?”

And what will the district do with these “problem students?”

Since the district is making student conduct beyond the hours they are under district control their business, what happens if some kid commits suicide in the future due to cyber-bullying? Does this create liability for the school district since they have an active spy program in place to monitor cyber-bullying for the expressed purpose of preventing suicide?

And why stop at students?

Given the almost daily revelation of some teacher somewhere being arrested for having sex with students or possessing children’s pornography, shouldn’t Glendale Unified hire Geo Listening to monitor the social postings of teachers, volunteers and all staff, as well as school board members?

While the firm only monitors public postings, even adults slip up and forget to go into privacy mode. Besides, Geo Listening boasts they have the ability to monitor frequency and other data relating to length and the number of contacts on a given day. If a high school teacher is communicating a bit too much with a student or someone under the age of 18 via social media that should raise a red flag. The same for school board members.

As for charges they are invading privacy, Geo Listening simply defends itself by saying they are only monitoring public postings. They note students can easily communicate in private mode.

True, but they can also repost information they are given in private that was never meant to be made public. If it has something to do with someone threatening violence, fine. But what if it is simply a matter of a kid spilling his or her emotional guts about a break-up or frustrations with a teacher to another kid? Under the broad sweep of Geo Listening, such reposts would be provided in a daily report to the school district and as such could lead to a response by school officials.

It is one thing to go after bullies and those who can do physical harm to others and themselves. It is another to make an entire generation so paranoid that they become guarded with everything they do and say.

Part of growing up is learning about your emotions and learning how to interact with others. If you are constantly being monitored you can be branded as a “such and such” for life for comments that were just made in passing. You can also develop a paranoia that would make Joseph Stalin proud.

Making matters worse, Geo Listening actually concedes students – who may not be thrilled about monitoring – could intentionally post things to get a riuse out of school officials. Now there’s a new one, students intentionally getting in the face of authority.

That means those daily reports could have school officials chasing down false leads.

So at the end of the day how does an NSA-style spy program admittedly operated in the public domain do anything to improve student safety when measured against the cost in time, money, and individual freedom?

If does do one thing. It certainly prepares students for what they can expect to happen to them in the real world.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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