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School System Reportedly Hires Former FBI Agent to Monitor Social Media

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Editor’s note: This is an update to a story that was done last year by CNN Digital Correspondent Kelly Wallace on how a growing number of schools are monitoring students’ social media accounts and the legal and privacy implications of such moves.

(CNN) — Just as parents are grappling with how to keep their kids safe on social media, schools are increasingly confronting a controversial question: Should they do more to monitor students’ online interactions off-campus to protect them from dangers such as bullying, drug use, violence and suicide?

In Huntsville, Alabama, the school system reportedly paid $157,000 to a former FBI agent for security work, which included investigating the social media activity of students.

The former agent is a member of a three-person team that started monitoring students’ posts on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit in January, according to CNN affiliate WHNT.com.

Since the program called Students Against Fear (SAFe) launched, 14 students have been expelled because of threatening or inappropriate online content, WHNT.com reported.

“As any good parent would do, we take all the measures that are appropriate to ensure the safety of our kids,” said school district superintendent Casey Wardynski in September, when asked about the program at a news conference.

The Huntsville, Alabama school system is just the latest district to capture headlines for monitoring students on social media sites.

In the summer of 2012, the Glendale school district in suburban Los Angeles was in the spotlight for its decision to pay a tech firm $40,500 to track what middle and high school students post publicly on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

The school district went with the firm Geo Listening after a pilot program with the company helped a student who was talking on social media about “ending his life,” company CEO Chris Frydrych told CNN’s Michael Martinez last September.

“We were able to save a life,” said Richard Sheehan, the Glendale superintendent, adding that two students in the school district had committed suicide the past two years.

“It’s just another avenue to open up a dialogue with parents about safety,” he said.

The Glendale school district is not alone. David Jones, president of the firm Safe Outlook Corporation, said two school districts and three schools pay, on average, between $4,000 to $9,000 per year for one of his technology products called CompuGuardian and that he expects the number of schools participating to go up. (Jones said he was not at liberty to reveal which schools work with his company.)

His product gives schools access to, among other things, reporting tools that allow users to search key words connected to cyberbullying and drug use, and to see whether students are researching topics about dangers such as school violence.

“You can identify a student, and you can jump into their activity logs and see exactly what they’ve typed, exactly where they’ve gone, exactly what they’ve done, and it gives you some history that you can go back to that child and use some disciplinary action,” Jones said. “You can bring in the parent and say, ‘Hey, look, this is what your child’s doing. You need to talk to them about it.’ ”

Florida suicide sparks questions for schools

The issue of just what kids may be doing to each other online gained even more attention after a 12-year-old Florida girl, Rebecca Sedwick, who was allegedly repeatedly cyberbullied, jumped to her death in September of last year.

Two girls, ages 12 and 14, were arrested and charged with aggravated stalking, accused of sending Sedwick messages such as “Why aren’t you dead?” and “Wait a minute, why are you still alive?” (Those charges were eventually dropped.)

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said the school was aware of on-campus bullying of Sedwick and dealt with it by separating the students and putting them in different classes, but it was not aware of any off-campus bullying — online — that was allegedly taking place.

Under a Florida law that went into effect in July of last year (PDF), before Sedwick’s death, if parents or students notify a school about suspected bullying off-campus, the school has the authority to look at a student’s Facebook posts and e-mails, according to Blanton.

“The key to everything is, we have to be notified … because there is no way we could monitor all the Facebook accounts and e-mail accounts and tweets and Twitters and all that,” Blanton said. “We have 2.8 million students, but if it’s reported, our teachers, our principals, our school resource officers are receiving extensive training and acting immediately on that.”

“A gray area that could … lead to a lot of litigation”

Blanton said school administrators are talking, especially after the Sedwick case, about what more they can do in terms of monitoring kids’ social media but said that besides the logistics of keeping tabs on millions of students, there are big legal questions about a student’s privacy rights.

“I think that’s the biggest issue you’re wrestling with when you start intercepting someone’s messages,” Blanton said. “Should I intercept your messages based on certain words? You’re really getting into a gray area that could potentially lead to a lot of litigation.”

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, the school superintendents association, said it’s “not always clear” legally what can be done and what is within the scope of the district’s authority.

“In one state, the court will support the district and say, ‘absolutely, you have the right to do that.’ In a very similar situation in another court, the court will rule ‘absolutely not, it’s freedom of speech,’ ” Domenech said. “So the whole legal issue right now is very much up in the air.”

Cases in point: In September 2013 in Nevada, a federal appeals court backed school officials in the suspension of a high school student who allegedly threatened his classmates with violence on Myspace. But in Indiana in 2011, a court found that school officials had violated students’ free speech rights when two girls were suspended from extracurricular activities for posting pictures of themselves with phallic-shaped lollipops.

And, in March 2014, a Minnesota student was awarded a $70,000 settlement after her school district forced her to turn over passwords for her Facebook and email accounts, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. As part of the settlement, the school district has agreed to change its policies to better protect students’ rights.

“I think the best guideline we can give school districts is to always go back to the issue of the safety of the students uppermost,” Domenech said. “If the safety of a student’s involved and you are not necessarily sure whether the district has the authority to do it or not, well, you know what, go out on a limb at that point, because if you are talking about saving a student’s life then you’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Balancing safety with not “recording their every move”

John Palfrey Jr., head of the boarding school Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, said he and his colleagues try to strike a balance between ensuring students’ safety and not having them feel “like we are recording their every move.”

If a student follows him on Twitter, he will follow them back, but on Facebook, teachers don’t accept friend requests from students or extend them, and they don’t “go hunting around” to see what students are saying on the social networking platform.

“We see certain spaces that they’re communicating with their friends as akin to what they might be saying … behind closed doors in a dorm room and I think that’s a place where we, as administrators, don’t belong,” said Palfrey.

Public largely critical of school monitoring

How much to monitor students’ social media is not just an issue fraught with logistical and legal challenges. There is also the court of public opinion, which leans heavily to the “schools are overreaching” side of the equation, according to comments we received on CNN’s Facebook page.

“Schools need to respect boundaries and the First Amendment,” Tom Gayda, who is director of student publications for an Indianapolis high school, wrote in an e-mail.

“Kids needs to be free to say (something) without feeling like the school is watching them 24/7,” Gayda later said in an interview. “My concern is if a kid goes home and writes ‘the school lunch sucks,’ and the next day they’re brought in and in trouble for complaining about school food.”

But Lauren, a 20-year-old college student who only wanted to use her first name, believes that schools should be monitoring social media content posted by students because many times, she said, parents aren’t aware of what their children are up to.

“I recently found my 13-year-old sister’s Tumblr with the title ‘Depressed but well dressed,’ ” Lauren said. “It immediately made me take action, let my parents know and make sure she got the help she needed.

“Had the situation been any different, the outcome might have been tragic,” she said. “I support this measure and believe more schools should follow.”

Social media monitoring: Wave of the future?

Domenech, who represents public school superintendents, said that at this stage, he thinks only a “very small number” of districts are actively monitoring students online, primarily because they don’t have the staffing or the money to hire a firm to help.

Instead of more schools trying to follow the Huntsville, Alabama or Glendale, California district’s lead, Blanton of the Florida School Boards Association believes schools should mount a major public relations campaign targeting students and parents, letting them know it’s OK to report anything of concern they see online.

He compares it to an ad campaign in Florida from about 15 years ago encouraging students to report any weapons they see on campus. Now, 90% of guns found on school premises in the state are reported by students, he said.

“We have to get to the same point with when you see a student (or) another student sees a student being bullied, or a parent knows about a Facebook account, they have to let us know,” Blanton said.

In the end, prevention is better than high-tech surveillance, said Domenech.

“I think most school districts don’t want to become NSAs,” he said. “We don’t see that that is really our role.”