When it comes to social media monitoring by schools, the current landscape is very muddy
The recent publicity surrounding the Pearson snooping (I can’t bring myself to call it monitoring because that sounds too official and Daniel Katz’s post showed how irrational it is for Pearson to consider that the PARCC test is their product and therefore appropriate for them to protect) in social media has once again stirred the boiling pot of social unrest as society tries to deal with technology that is advancing faster than we are. At the base of the unrest is the issue of responsibility and authority. Who has it? Where does it begin and end? How much responsibility does the entity have? What powers are they granted to carry out that responsibility?
The ONLY reason Pearson can be forgiven, just a little, for their actions against the New Jersey student who tweeted about the PARCC tests, is because we don’t yet have consensus on the answers to these questions. When it comes to children and schools, we barely have consensus on whether the school has the right to do things that flirt awfully close to the line of constitutional rights like locker searches, bans on imprinted clothing or use of cell phones. We are nowhere close to consensus when it comes to things like the ability to search student cell phone content, bans on particular words or searches of student social media accounts, yet all of these things are happening in schools around the country.When it comes to social media monitoring we really are talking the wild west if we want answers to the questions posed above.
There is the issue of responsibility vs. authority. Schools have the authority to act when it is reasonable to expect that a student’s action will cause a disruption in the school and affect other students’ rights to receive an education. But that is very different from a responsibility to detect all possible such actions and act upon them to prevent disruption which is the line many schools take. Such a viewpoint is noble perhaps if we are talking about monitoring for students posting on social media that they are about to commit suicide, but much more sinister if we are talking about monitoring for rude speech like saying mean things about a staff member. This is what happened to one teen in Minnesota who wrote negative comments on her facebook page about a teacher’s aide.
Though on her own account accessed from home, not school equipment, school officials gave her a detention and forced her to write a letter of apology for saying that she hated this aide. That should have been the end of the story about a girl learning to be more civil in her public behavior (the post was public). However, that was where the witch hunt began. The school received a complaint shortly after this that the girl and a male student were having explicit conversations over Facebook so the school officials forced her to turn over her account login information to “verify” the complaint. Remember that line between authority and responsibility.
The fact that they had to get login information in order to see these messages means that they were private and not publicly posted. That means someone either on her end of the line or his had to see the messages. I’m picturing a mother who accessed her son’s account and was not happy about what she saw, who then called the school to put an end to it. Oh, by the way, these kids are around 12-13 years old. I view this as a strange response from a mother as I too was in a similar but reversed situation with my daughter at about the same age. But I did not turn to the school. I called the boy’s parents directly and asked if they knew what he was typing to my daughter. We embarrassed the heck out of the kids, but put a stop to inappropriate behavior without airing any dirty laundry in public or getting other people involved in solving our problems.
The Minnesota girl sued the school for invasion of privacy and won a $70,000 settlement. Now you can see how a school policy can actually cause a liability for the school when they were using the policy to try to prevent liability. It is a bit of a quagmire at this time. In the case cited above the basics were no different than they have been for decades. A young girl develops a crush on a boy, maybe sends him notes or tells her friends how much she likes him, he doesn’t like the attention but is still years behind her in emotional maturity and has no idea how to deal with such unwanted advances. This makes going to school with her a very uncomfortable situation. There are two modern twists on this age old drama. The first is that we now have the ability to pass these notes electronically and the second, thanks to the feminist and LGBTQ agenda in which our children are taught to act on every single remotely sexual impulse they have because it is their natural right, is children are sending more explicit messages at younger and younger ages.
The first difference is critical because in prior decades the teacher might have confiscated the note in class and maybe had a private conversation with the passer(s) about what is proper behavior for 13 year olds and why they cannot disrupt the class with their little drama. Back then the only information the teacher saw was the content of that note. With social media, the school officials can see a lot more information about not only that particular student, but also their family and friends. And here is where that line between authority and responsibility becomes really critical. They may see other uncivil behavior or they may even see signs of criminal behavior by people not in their school. Do they have a responsibility to act on this information? Do they have the authority to act? When it comes to the authority to search the content of a smart phone you are basically talking about the government’s right to search your entire life if you think about the amount of personal information stored on today’s smart phone. Does a school have this right? Do we want to grant schools this right?
Schools that mistakenly believe they have a responsibility to prevent all disruption of the education process have hired unscrupulous companies which promise to monitor student social media for such postings. Detecting and acting on every possible case is simply not reasonable and will end up a huge waste of time and money. One school district in Alabama hired a former FBI agent to do this for the sum of $157,190. The result was the expulsion of 14 students. But the effort to make the school more safe and reduce their liability actually increased their liability because it was discovered that 12 of the 14 students were black, a disproportionate number compared to the student population as whole, which called into question the potential bias in what the school was doing and opened them up to lawsuits.
Once word gets out that schools are doing this monitoring, students, who aren’t as dumb as adults think they are, will move to other platforms, ones which may be riskier, less public. Word will soon get around not to even acknowledge the existence of these platforms, like Yik Yak, to school officials. This can lead to a false sense of security for school officials thinking that they have everything under control, but can also undermine the thing they are most interested in protecting, the positive climate in their schools. Students will view all staff as potential invaders of their privacy, the overall level of trust will decrease and students who have been good about sharing concerns with staff in the past will close those lines of communication. Who would share something with a teacher you saw on your social media, knowing the school had the right to examine everything on your social media if you spoke up?
Here in Missouri we have a representative who is taking this issue head on. Representative Robert Cornejo has filed HB912 to protect students from being forced to give schools access to their social media accounts either through providing login information directly, or having to log in in front of school officials, or having to change settings to make posts public that were marked private. It also prevents schools from forcing students to grant them access to their network contacts.
Other states have similar laws already on the books, some of which cover K-12 and post secondary, and others which only address post secondary. Arkansas, California, Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Wisconsin
Illinois also has a law on the books, but this law still allowed schools to request access to personal accounts so a new bill (HB4082) was recently introduced to fix the flaw so that now a school would need a court order.
The basics of human nature are still at play. Teens who are trying to sort out the social order will say mean stupid things about other people. Their audience on social media is other teens who bond over mutual enemies. Speaking ill of, say, the principal has happened for decades and never caused the academic system to fall apart. While theoretically doing so on social media exposes those comments to a wider audience than in the past, you still have to be networked in to that individual in order to see those comments which means that I am very unlikely to see comments about Principal Jones in Tonawanda New York unless I am specifically looking for them. Even then, as an adult, I am expected to place the proper perspective on the rantings of a 12 year old. The point being, we have had the means of dealing with stupid adolescent behavior in the past. Most student gossip does not affect the entire school. Those actions that do, like organizing a walk out, can still be dealt with. The desire to prevent any and all disruption is where most policies go awry and where abuse of power is a real threat.
This is a topic which requires much public debate. I look forward to your comments.