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Glendale school district says social media monitoring is for student safety

Glendale Unified is using the firm Geo Listening in a bid against cyberbullying, suicides, drugs and other ills. Critics say it infringes on privacy and steps beyond schools' jurisdiction.

September 16, 2013|By Stephen Ceasar

Hoover High School junior Christopher Chung learned while scrolling through Facebook that his school was monitoring students' online activities.

Christopher saw an article posted by a friend about the Glendale Unified School District hiring a company to screen students' social media posts. The school district had been doing so for about a year, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"I heard rumors that GUSD was doing a little bit of monitoring — but nothing as official as this," he said. "The only way students were finding out about it was through social media. Our principal hasn't said anything about it."

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The district last year hired Hermosa Beach-based Geo Listening to piece together the cyber tidbits of its 14,000 or so middle and high school students. The effort, for which the district is paying $40,500, is aimed at unearthing the earliest signs of bullying and self-harm.

The company's computers scour an untold number of public posts by students on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example. 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.

While acknowledging some of the benefits, critics of the program contend that the monitoring could also have a chilling effect on students' free speech. And, they contend, it opens the possibility that students could be disciplined for comments made outside of school.

Students say the policing of their posts has stirred debate on campuses. Some are angry about what they see as an intrusion.

"They have a good purpose for what they're trying to do — stopping cyberbullying," Christopher said. "Nobody really understands what it is about or what the main objectives are of the program."

Glendale schools Supt. Dick Sheehan said the district was reeling from the recent suicides of students in the area and was searching for ways to reach out to those who need help. Two students committed suicide last school year, one at Crescenta Valley High School, which is in the district, and another at nearby La Cañada High School, which is part of the La Cañada Unified School District.

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