Sunday, April 20, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Warily, schools watch students on the Internet

By Somini Sengupta

SAN FRANCISCO — For years, a school principal’s job was to make sure students were not creating a ruckus in the hallways or smoking in the bathroom. Vigilance ended at the schoolhouse gates.

Now, as students complain, taunt and sometimes cry out for help on social media, educators have more opportunities to monitor students around the clock. And some schools are turning to technology to help them. Several companies offer services to filter and glean what students do on school networks; a few now offer automated tools to comb through off-campus postings for signs of danger. For school officials, this raises new questions about whether they should — or legally can — discipline children for their online outbursts.

The problem took on new urgency with the case of a 12-year-old Florida girl who committed suicide after classmates relentlessly bullied her online and offline.

Two girls — ages 12 and 14 — who the authorities contend were her chief tormentors were arrested last month after one posted a Facebook comment about her death. Charges later were dropped.

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. Courts have started to weigh in.

In September, a federal appeals court in Nevada, for instance, sided with school officials who suspended a high school sophomore for threatening, through messages on Myspace, to shoot classmates. 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.

Surveillance of students’ online speech, he said, 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?”

Interviews with educators suggest that 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. Tracking students on social media comes with its own risks: One principal in Missouri resigned last year after accusations that she had snooped on students using a fake Facebook account.

“It was our children she was monitoring,” said one Twitter user who identified herself as Judy Rayford, after the news broke last year, without, she added, “authorization” from children or parents.

But technology is catching on.

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

Students mocked the effort on Twitter, saying officials at the Glendale Unified School District would not “even understand what I tweet most of the time, they should hire a high school slang analyst #shoutout2GUSD.”

“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.

Chris Frydrych, the chief executive of Geo Listening, based in Hermosa Beach, also in Southern California, declined to explain how his company’s technology worked, except to say that it was “a sprinkling of technology and a whole lot of human capital.” He said Geo Listening looked for keywords and sentiments on posts that could be viewed publicly. It cannot, for instance, read anyone’s Facebook posts that are designated for “friends” or “friends of friends.”

But with Facebook’s announcement this month that teenagers will be permitted to post public status updates and images, Geo Listening and similar services will potentially have access to more information on that social network.

Glendale has paid Geo Listening $40,500 to monitor the social media posts. Frydrych declined to say which other schools his company works with, except to predict that by the end of the year, his company would have signed up 3,000 schools.

David Jones of CompuGuardian, based in Salt Lake City, said his product lets school officials monitor whether students were researching topics like how to build bombs or discussing anorexia. His customers 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.”

But when does protecting children from each other or from themselves turn into chilling free speech?

John G. Palfrey Jr., head of Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, said he favored a middle ground. He follows his students on Twitter if they follow him, for instance, but he is wary of automated tools that try to conduct what he called National Security Agency-style surveillance.

He briefly contended with this question last year when students created a blog where they could anonymously share “secrets.” Many posts were on the fringe, Palfrey recalled, and some teachers and students were concerned that children’s identities could be determined from their writing patterns. The blog’s student founders were persuaded to add a note of caution, warning participants that their identities could be discovered.

Palfrey offered an offline analogy. “We wouldn’t want to record every conversation they are having in the hallway,” he said. “The safety and well-being of our students is our top priority, but we also need for them to have the time and space to grow without feeling like we are watching their every move.”

That fine line seems to be equally confounding the courts.

In the Nevada case, a 16-year-old boy bragged on Myspace about having guns at home, and threatened to kill fellow students on a particular date. He also cited the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, in which a troubled student killed 32 people.

The boy ended up spending 31 days in a local jail and was suspended from school for 90 days. He then sued the district, saying his free speech rights had been violated.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the claim. It called his threats “alarming” and so specific that they presented “a real risk of significant disruption” to the school. Administrators were justified, the court ruled, for penalizing what was ostensibly off-campus speech.

“It’s going to be more and more of legal issues,” said Gretchen Shipley, a lawyer who represents school districts. “The ability to monitor is growing so quickly.”

The Indiana case offers a contrast. In the summer of 2009, two incoming 10th graders at Churubusco High School posted what the court called “raunchy” pictures of themselves. Once school officials found out, the girls were suspended from extracurricular activities for the school year. The girls sued, saying their free speech rights had been violated. The school contended that its student handbook bars conduct that could “discredit” or “dishonor” it.

The court found that prohibition too broad. The students’ pictures, “juvenile” though they were, did not cause “substantial disruption” at school, the court ruled, and even though it was just “crude humor,” it was protected speech. “No message of lofty social or political importance was conveyed, but none is required,” the court said.

New York Times News Service

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | No comments

The Davis Enterprise does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

.

News

Tom Adams seeks Davis school board seat

By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A1

 
Hub of activity: DHS newspaper keeps evolving

By Zoe Juanitas | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
A springtime ritual

By Wayne Tilcock | From Page: A1 | Gallery

Holy fire ceremony draws thousands in Jerusalem

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2 | Gallery

 
Tour renovated YCCC facility Thursday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Tour Davis Waldorf School on Wednesday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

The fifth annual Tour de Cluck is soon to be hatched

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3 | Gallery

 
Ortiz lawn signs available

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

Sign up soon for spring cooking classes

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

 
Robb Davis team to rally on Saturday

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3

Steadfast in their support

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A4, 8 Comments | Gallery

 
Yolo Hospice offers free grief workshops

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Sign up for Camp Kesem caterpillar crawl

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Quilters gear up for annual show

By Sebastian Onate | From Page: A4

League hosts a series of candidate forums

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

 
KDVS launches fund drive on Monday

By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A5

Calling all Scrabble fans

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5, 1 Comment | Gallery

 
Hub webpage is seeing traffic increasing

By Zoe Juanitas | From Page: A8

Hotel/conference center info meeting set

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A16

 
Lescroart welcomes all to book-launch party

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A16 | Gallery

DEVO set to serve up 14th annual Winkler Dinner

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A16 | Gallery

 
Learn Chinese crafts at I-House

By Sebastian Onate | From Page: A16

Preschool open house set at Davis Waldorf

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A16

 
Birch Lane celebrates its 50th anniversary

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A16

.

Forum

Take ownership of your health

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B5

 
Keep your baby safe

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A7

 
Not thrilled with lack of symmetry

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A7

Reliving the agony and ecstasy of spring

By Marion Franck | From Page: A7

 
Road diet? No, city diet!

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A12, 5 Comments

We’re reveling in our equality

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A12, 1 Comment

 
Vote no; it’s fiscally responsible

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A12, 3 Comments

Rick McKee cartoon

By Debbie Davis | From Page: A12

 
Core values on campus

By Our View | From Page: A12, 3 Comments

 
Don’t want to sit in Fix 50 traffic? Consider alternatives

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A13, 1 Comment

 
Bill is an affront to UC Davis ag biotech and local farmers

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A13, 2 Comments

.

Sports

Devils burn up the track

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

 
UCD softball shut out by Santa Barbara

By Thomas Oide | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Aggie men shoot 9-under, lead own tourney

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

Stars shine in Woody Wilson Classic

By Evan Ream | From Page: B1, 1 Comment | Gallery

 
UCD roundup: Aggie baseball swept away by Highlanders

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B2

A’s score 3 in ninth, rally past Astros 4-3

By The Associated Press | From Page: B6

 
.

Features

.

Arts

.

Business

Yolo Federal Credit Union gets WISH funds

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9

 
PG&E pays taxes, fees to county, cities

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9, 1 Comment

Will Davis get an Old Soul?

By Wendy Weitzel | From Page: A9

 
Pediatricians, nurse practitioner hired at Woodland Healthcare

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9 | Gallery

Asian stocks mostly higher after mixed U.S. earnings

By The Associated Press | From Page: A9

 
Davis Roots will showcase its graduating startups

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A14

University Honda wins another President’s Award

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A14 | Gallery

 
Dutch Bros. raises $19,000 for girl with leukemia

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A14 | Gallery

.

Obituaries

.

Comics

Comics: Sunday, April 20, 2014

By Creator | From Page: B8