Sep. 16, 2013 at 12:17 PM ET
GLENDALE, Calif. (AP) - A Southern California school district is trying to stop cyberbullying and a host of other teenage ills by monitoring the public posts students make on social media outlets in a program that has stirred debate about what privacy rights teenage students have when they fire up their smartphones.
Glendale Unified School District hired Geo Listening last year to track posts by its 14,000 or so middle and high school students. The district approached the Hermosa Beach-based company in hopes of curtailing online bullying, drug use and other problems after two area teenagers committed suicide last year, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
The company expects to be monitoring about 3,000 schools worldwide by the end of the year, said its founder, Chris Frydrych.
In Southern California, the district is paying $40,500 to Geo Listening, and in exchange, the company's computers scour public posts by students on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blogs and other sites. Analysts are alerted to terms that suggest suicidal thoughts, bullying, vandalism and even the use of obscenities, among other things. When they find posts they think should spur an intervention or anything that violates schools' student codes of conduct, the company alerts the campus.
The Glendale district began a pilot program to monitor students online last year at its three high schools, Glendale, Hoover and Crescenta Valley.
"We think it's been working very well," said the district's superintendent, Dick Sheehan. "It's designed around student safety and making sure kids are protected."
Some students say they are bothered by the monitoring, even if it's intended to help them.
"We all know social media is not a private place, not really a safe place," said Young Cho, 16, a junior at Hoover High. "But it's not the same as being in school. It's students' expression of their own thoughts and feelings to their friends. For the school to intrude in that area — I understand they can do it, but I don't think it's right."
The company does not have a list of students' names and instead uses "deductive reasoning" to link public accounts to students, Frydrych said. It also only looks at public postings.
Brendan Hamme, an attorney with the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the district is walking a fine line with its social media surveillance.
The program is "sweeping and far afield of what is necessary to ensure student safety," he said.
Daily reports to school administrators include a screen capture of the flagged posts, along with details of whether they were made on or off campus, the time and date, the user's name, if available, and a description of why the post caught the attention of analysts, Frydrych said.
It's up to administrators to decide to act and, so far, no students have been disciplined because of a post discovered under the pilot program, Sheehan said.