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Social media monitoring of schools may have saved a life

California district analyzing students’ public posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media

Glendale USD in southern California has taken an unprecedented step in bullying and crime prevention by paying a company to analyze students’ public posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media.

The company, Geo Listening, searches the public social media activity of middle and high school students for signs of bullying, suicidal messages, vandalism, drug use, and crime. Analysts flag potentially harmful posts in a daily report for administrators, who decide whether or not to intervene, says Chris Frydrych, CEO of Geo Listening.

The district is paying $40,500 for the service. Administrators tested the program in three high schools last spring, after a student in the district committed suicide. During the pilot period, the company reported a student’s suicidal messages to district officials, and administrators were able to step in to help.

“We were able to save a life,” Glendale superintendent Richard Sheehan told CNN. “It’s just another avenue to open up a dialogue with parents about safety.”

Geo Listening launched its social media monitoring service in January, and, in October, added a mobile app that allows students to anonymously report bullying. Though the service can only monitor public social media pages, the app will allow students to report posts that happen under private accounts, Frydrych says.

Frydrych would not disclose the number of schools using the monitoring services, but expects to expand to 3,000 schools worldwide by the end of the year.

Though the company says its practices are lawful, its actions have raised privacy concerns from parents and legal groups.

“In one sense, the postings are public on the web and available to anyone,” says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. “But at the same time, it’s intrusive. Instead of talking to a kid and being engaged in their life, they are checking them out on Facebook. The whole thing goes beyond education, and interferes with having a respectful relationship with your students,” Tien says.

The California Department of Education recommends that schools teach students how to prevent and respond to online peer harassment, and how to engage in responsible and ethical online communication.

“Cyberbullying is an important issue that needs attention,” says Giorgos Kazanis, spokesperson for the California Department of Education. “However, the way in which districts decide to address it is a local decision.”