Southern California’s Glendale Unified School District is taking controversial steps to combat cyber bullying. Specifically, the district has hired a company called Geo Listening to monitor its students’ social media postings.
This monitoring may occur on school computers and on those in the student’s home. Although some parents and students feel that this monitoring is invasive and has overtones of a big brother mentality, others are hailing it as a positive step toward fighting cyber bullying and identifying at risk students who don’t know where to turn to seek help for emotional and psychological issues.
The program began in 2012 in the aftermath of a school district tragedy. A student had committed suicide by jumping from the roof of one of Glendale’s high schools. Administrators saw a need to track early warning signs that students were headed for trouble. This, coupled with the global emphasis on stopping cyber bullying, led the district to contract with Geo Listening to monitor the social network postings of the students in a handful of its schools.
That pilot program is now being extended to all middle and high schools in the district. Although Dr. Richard Sheehan, Glendale District Superintendent, notes that the program is directly related to “student safety,” critics remain unsure. Sheehan asserts that Geo Listening will be looking for postings that indicate that “a student is considering harming themselves [or] harming someone else.”
On the surface, this appears to be a well intentioned program. The policy grants Geo Listening the opportunity to review postings made by Glendale students to popular social media websites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. However, it’s important to make the distinction that Geo Listening will only have access to public accounts that are essentially viewable by any users. Students can opt out of participating in the monitoring by privatizing the settings of their social media accounts, which, considering the prevalence of online risks, is probably a good idea anyway. While this monitoring may prove to be an important tool, it should be just one approach among many to combat cyber bullying and provide assistance to at risk youth.