Education

Warily, Schools Surveil Students on the Internet

October 29, 2013
 

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 has taken 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 this month after one posted a Facebook comment about her death.

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?”

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