Amid a rise in global attention to teen cyber-bullying, one California school district is taking a decidedly aggressive approach, by hiring an outside company to monitor the social media activity of its students. Glendale Unified School District in Southern California began an “eavesdropping” initiative last year to monitor teens engaging in unsafe activities, and is now expanding it to all of its middle and high schools.
According to NBC 4, the school district board approved a $40,000 to hire the Hermosa Beach-based company Geo Listening, as a tool for intervening in the lives of students who might be struggling with cyber bullying or suicidal ideations.
District Superintendent Dr. Richard Sheehan said that the school district decided to further develop its partnership with Geo Listening, a service that monitors information that teens post to social media networks like Twitter and Instagram, after a year of working together. Glendale hired the monitoring service last year after the death of one of their students, 15-year-old Drew Ferraro, who committed suicide by jumping from the roof of Crescenta Valley High School.
“With modern technology, unfortunately we have to try and stay a step ahead of the kids,” Dr. Sheehan said. “We’re not trying to hide anything, because the whole point of this is student safety.”
“The whole purpose is student safety,” he added. “Basically, it just monitors for keywords where if a student is considering harming themselves, harming someone else.”
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And Sheehan believes the program has already had a critical role in preventing another suicide, after it turned over disturbing posts a student had made. “The administrator was contacted at the school site. Then we made contact with the student, the student’s family and we got them the appropriate help,” he said.
When asked about whether the school monitors posts written in students’ personal time, Sheehan said, “We do monitor on and off campus, but we do pay attention during school hours. We do pay more attention to the school computers.”
In an “About Us” statement on their website, Geo Listening writes, “Your students are crying for help. We have heard these cries of despair, and for help and attention, loud and clear from students themselves via their public postings on social networks. Many feel as though no one is listening, and they are falling away from societal connections. This trend can be reversed with more timely information that we can provide to the appropriate school staff.”
Teen cyberbullying crimes been pushed to the center of a global debate following the suicides of high school students like Rehtaeh Parsons and Hannah Smith. But the surveillance measures are controversial among Glenvale students, who are concerned it violates their privacy.
“I think it’s a bad idea because everybody deserves their privacy,” Crescenta Valley High School student Matilda Sinany said.
Chris Frydrych, the CEO of Geo Listening told CBS 2 said the service only aggregates information that is publicly available and doesn’t have access to posts made on private pages. “We have provided information to school districts, which has led to numerous successful interventions on behalf of students that intended self-harm, suicide, bullying, truancy, substance abuse, and vandalism. We monitor only public posts to social networks. We do not monitor privatized pages, SMS, MMS, email, phone calls, voicemails,” Frydrych said.