GLENDALE, Calif. — It’s Friday afternoon. School just got out at Hoover High. You can hear the drumline practicing in the distance. A group of senior guys sit talking kitty corner from campus as one of them skateboards.
The week before, the entire campus was abuzz with word the district was monitoring their social media accounts. “Somebody read something [online] and rumors spread,” says Andre Abramian, a senior.
Most of his friends had heard about it. A few hadn’t. “That’s fucked up!” one says after Abramian explains what happened. “That’s bullshit!”
The school district hired a Hermosa Beach firm, Geo Listening, to monitor students’ social media accounts and report back with what they find. Some attacked it as an invasion of privacy. The district sees it as a way to help students. The consensus among Abramian and his friends is that it’s about discipline.
“For like a week, everybody talked about it, but then nothing happened,” says Michael Rizzo, a senior. “I haven’t heard of anybody who got in trouble.”
Their teachers are mostly on board with the program. Rizzo says he’s only heard one opposed to it.
The next day, The New York Times will break news that the National Security Administration has been monitoring Americans’ social networks since 2010. The story was mostly lost in the lead up to the government shut down, and also, it’s not that surprising a revelation, considering the government has been tracking Americans’ phone records and emails.
Polling has shown that a majority of Americans think the government’s phone and email surveillance tactics are acceptable as an anti-terror tactic, and it’s not a stretch to assume they’ll feel the same way when asked about their social media.
Andre, Michael and their friends feel the same way. When asked if they’re OK with what the district’s doing, they shrug. They don’t think they ever post anything on social media that will get them in trouble anyways.
“We built this for the kids,” says Chris Frydych, Geo Listening’s CEO. “I just really wanted to have a greater impact in some of the areas involving school climate.”
Frydych hopes his service will make schools better by giving educators and administrators more information about their students. They look for evidence of bullying, drug use, violence, possible suicide and unauthorized use of technology in the classroom by using a blend of technology and employees who sift through the data to find meaningful information.
“We don’t interpret, we just provide information,” he says. “We get that information to people who work there every day and help.”
Geo Listening is expected to have 3,000 “school sites” as clients by the end of July across the country and internationally as well, Frydych says. He’s tight lipped over who the clients are, though. A confidentiality agreement means even curious districts thinking about signing up for the service can’t find out which of their neighbors are already using it. The only reason Glendale’s business became public was because it was picked up on by local media after being included in a district board meeting.
“The contract with Geo Listening was included in the district’s board agenda,” said Kelly Corrigan, a Glendale News-Press reporter, in an email. “The board approved it without any discussion then.”
The district had also piloted the program last spring, but Corrigan says as far as she knows, they never publicly discussed that. If it wasn’t for her reporting, the program would still be a secret.
Her story set off a media firestorm that drew the attention of the Los Angeles Times and CNN and drew criticism of privacy advocates. Frydych, who had previously listed the connection to the Glendale district on his LinkedIn profile, went private, Corrigan said. Glendale Superintendent Richard Sheehan defended the program, saying during its pilot phase, the district was able to intervene with a student who was contemplating suicide on social media. “We were able to save a life,” Sheehan told CNN.
Suicide prevention has become a top concern for districts. Sheehan said two students have committed suicide in the past year, and California has reduced mental health services in schools. It’s also an issue parents hold schools responsible for. In 2011, the parents of a Florida girl who committed suicide after being bullied for a topless photo she sent to a boy spread through the school, sued their school district, arguing they didn’t do enough after their daughter showed signs of being suicidal.
A district spokesperson said Sheehan was no longer speaking to media about the program. Glendale was burdened with the fallout from the story, but potentially hundreds of schools across the country are doing the same thing without students’ knowledge.
Frydych dismisses critics who say his service is a violation of privacy. He sees the outrage as misunderstanding from adults who are used to an Internet of email and passwords and privacy and don’t know the realities of publicly visible social media. “We only look at publicly available social media,” he says. “You make a conscious decision to publish publicly or privately.”
He also says this is something students want. “The students have stood up and said they want this,” he says.
At a district meeting after the program came to light, Hoover High School senior Audria Amirian, a student representative on the school board defended the program.
“They’re not hacking into your system to find out what you’ve posted,” she said, according to the Glendale News-Press. “Everything is public information. And I think that even if it saves one student’s life, it’s worth every dollar that you’ve put into it.”
Frydych says he doesn’t seem much competition in in Geo Listening’s future — “I think the companies are scared of liabilities,” he says — and they’re moving forward, working within the legal framework of each new state and country they enter. It’s a service more and more schools might look to as they grapple with how to handle students and social media.
“Adults have a very large blind spot for what’s happening on social media,” he says. “They don’t understand the volume of negative activity students see directed towards them and their peers.”