Schools Are Safer Than Ever, But That's Not Stopping Schools From Buying Social Media Monitoring Software

from the this-rock-repels-bears dept

Students socialize via the internet more often than not... you know, just like the rest of us do. More and more frequently, they're being surveilled by their schools. This first came to light a half-decade ago, when documents surfaced showing a California school district had purchased social media monitoring software to keep tabs on its students. Similar stories followed, including one incident where a test publisher admitted to monitoring social media posts of students taking its tests.

In about half the country, this is now standard operating procedure for schools. The Brennan Center for Justice reports schools are purchasing social media monitoring tools with increasing frequency, allowing them to track and surveil students far past the borders of the school grounds.

In an attempt to quantify expenditures on social media monitoring software by school districts, the Brennan Center examined contracts for such software using SmartProcure, a database of government purchase orders. Our review is based on self-reported procurement orders in the database, and thus likely depicts only a portion of school spending on these tools. According to these data, school spending on social media monitoring software has surged in recent years. As the graph below indicates, the database shows 63 school districts across the country purchasing social media monitoring software in 2018, up from just six in 2013 — more than a tenfold increase.

The logic behind the increase in monitoring is flawed. Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased, even if the amount of actual violence hasn't. Students aren't more violent than ever, as stats compiled by the DOJ show. Juvenile arrest rates reached their peak in 1996 and have declined 72% since that point.

Despite evidence otherwise, schools are claiming "safety" is the propellant driving these purchases. But there's no evidence these tools make students safer. But it's easy for districts to point to historically low levels of student criminal activity as evidence they're doing something right, even if it has nothing to do with monitoring students as they engage in their off-campus lives.

Anyone who's failed to mind the generation gap will be unsurprised to learn these tools aren't the greatest at determining which students may pose a threat to others. As the Brennan Center points out, social media communication is rarely straightforward and the tools aren't smart enough to sort the harmless from harmful.

Aside from anecdotes promoted by the companies that sell this software, there is no proof that these surveillance tools work. But there are plenty of risks. In any context, social media is ripe for misinterpretation and misuse. But the possibility of misinterpretation is particularly high for middle school and high school students, who are more likely to use slang and quotes from pop culture, and who may be especially motivated to evade adults’ prying eyes. Difficulties in interpretation mean that social media monitoring of students is likely to lead to false positives. Moreover, monitoring programs are particularly bad at correctly understanding languages other than English and even non-standard English, which may be used by minority students.

Obviously, these drawbacks are never highlighted by companies selling surveillance tech to schools. And schools are spending other people's money, so due diligence is rarely anything more than an afterthought. The more they buy these tools, the more competitors enter the field, offering varying degrees of expertise that all look like they're top-of-the-line when being pitched to school administrators.

While most of these tools do nothing more than scrap public posts from social media platforms, there are too many downsides to consider this a positive development for students. False positives are a huge concern, especially when schools are relying more and more on law enforcement to handle routine discipline problems. There's also very little justification for schools to continue tracking students as they engage in their lives away from the campus. While the tools may occasionally surface something of concern, the tradeoff being made completely excludes students from the equation, treating their private lives as little more than a source of mostly-useless data.

There's no expectation of privacy in public posts, but there is the expectation that school administration won't be adding itself to conversations taking place off school grounds. These tools subvert that expectation and will likely push more students to take their accounts private, making it that much more difficult for truly concerning social media posts to be seen and reported.

Filed Under: school safety, schools, social media, social media monitoring


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  • icon
    Bamboo Harvester (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 11:04am

    The logic isn't...

    ...flawed.

    You're not looking at it from the "correct" perspective: LIABILITY.

    It's no different than mandatory Sexual Harassment and such classes. It creates a cut-out from liability when, not if, such occurs.

    If they did NOT have monitoring software, it would be a de facto admission that they didn't "try" to stop XYZ actions from occurring.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 11:53am

      Re: The logic isn't...

      I think social media monitoring is more a case of having an excuse for teachers not spotting problem signs in the kids. It may also have a lot to do with an authoritarian mindset in school administrations.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bamboo Harvester (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 12:31pm

        Re: Re: The logic isn't...

        Gods, nothing to do with mindset, authoritarian or otherwise.

        It's a matter of LIABILITY when bad events occur. Then can show they "did XYZ, which is as much as the law allows us to do to prevent ABC from happening in... cue spin doctors..."

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 12:41pm

          Re: Re: Re: The logic isn't...

          It's a matter of LIABILITY when bad events occur.

          How can there be any liability when social media posts are completely off-campus conversations.

          Do you think it's justified if school admins put security cameras off-campus in places where their students congregate just so they can make sure there is no liability in case some event happens? And where does it end, cameras in their student's back yards, garages, etc....

          That is basically what you're advocating for here, is that because of liability, the school should be aware of anything and everything that the students are doing off-campus.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 1:20pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: The logic isn't...

            Do you think it's justified if school admins put security cameras off-campus

            Well, schools have used laptop cameras on their students when they were not at school, so the admins think it is justified.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 2:53pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The logic isn't...

              Ya, sounds like school perverts!!! Watching young kids who may happen to be in front of that open laptop in their bedroom as they're getting dressed or undressed. That is so far beyond, I'd sue the school.

              What happens OFF-CAMPUS has nothing to do with the school. So long as you are not on school property, you should be off limits. Maybe if Teachers did their jobs and pay attention to the Kids in their class,....

              This spying software which is what it is, is way beyond Invasive and creepy and should be banned.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 2:01pm

          Re: Re: Re: The logic isn't...

          "nothing to do with mindset, authoritarian or otherwise"

          Others have a different opinion, some of them have facts.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 2:21pm

          Re: Kids and the lawns they won’t leave

          “Gods, nothing to do with mindset, authoritarian or otherwise.”

          You have earned a reputation as an authoritarian cheerleader par excellence. You call it what you want bro. But you got boot polish on your breath.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 3:51pm

      Re: The logic isn't...

      Nailed it in one, that was exactly what came to mind as I read the article. Student safety isn't the driving motivation for grabbing software like that, the goal is CYOA for the administration by picking up some software they can point to should something go wrong.

      It costs the school nothing(they're spending someone else's money, and it's not like the software is spying on their social media activity), but provides a nice scapegoat should things go south, so why wouldn't they grab it?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bamboo Harvester (profile), 7 May 2019 @ 10:10am

        Re: Re: The logic isn't...

        The only "care" the system has for students is that they score high enough on the tests to keep the money rolling in.

        All these screeching AC's have obviously never owned a business or worked in the Legal/Accounting areas. There's a truly tremendous number of alligators hiding out there just waiting to bite you in the ass, and you do what you can to protect yourself against them.

        I pay a retainer to a local attorney, even though I do 90% of my own legal work. Because if something unforseen comes up where I need a lawyer, I've already got one. Insurance policy, nothing more. Same goes for the FB monitoring software.

        If a landlord in NY gets sued over something that software would have caught if they'd been using it on their tenants, I'll have to go buy a copy of it as well.

        If I don't I'm "legally negligent", and wide open to a lawsuit.

        Same for the schools.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      me@me.net, 7 May 2019 @ 6:41am

      Re: The logic isn't...

      There's also the rest of it. Much of Education is actually more about Indoctrination, and this "Big Brother" is watching mentality reinforces that.

      Yes one wants to avoid shootings etc, but is this monitoring software on School issues devices or are they insisting it go on pirvate pcs/etc as well, it is obvious over reach.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      btr1701 (profile), 7 May 2019 @ 2:58pm

      Re: The logic isn't...

      You're not looking at it from the "correct" perspective: LIABILITY.

      Nonsense. Nothing in current tort law requires a public school to turn into an Orwellian panopticon to avoid legal liability.

      Something I've never understood every time a story like this pops up is, how does the school or monitoring company know which accounts belong to their students?

      Many, if not most, people who use Twitter, for example, do not put their real names on their accounts. If I was a high school student right now, how would my school know that account @BTR1701 belonged to me? My actual name isn't anywhere on the account. And even if you do want to put your real name on your account, it's a simple matter to create a secondary or tertiary account to use when you want to say something you don't want the Big Brothers at school to know about.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 11:04am

    Get off my virtual lawn!

    And just like that, I am glad I grew up in a time before social media in the vein of Twitter was a “thing” for teenagers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bamboo Harvester (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 11:22am

      Re: Get off my virtual lawn!

      Eh, they only do that because there aren't any malls left to hang out in.

      /s

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2019 @ 9:59am

        Re: Re: Get off my virtual lawn!

        Even if they were to hang out, no interaction could reliably be observed. Eyes would automatically follow their phone screens at all times. The occasional laughter will only count as statistical noise, a little blurb in the sea of dumbfoundedness. When nature calls, the teen drone will silently come and go, never letting go of the brick, even as they are putting other bricks in the bowl.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 11:22am

    Another example of proving the adults are more stupid than the kids when it comes to technology.

    The kids in the family were already prepared for this type of invasion, setting up two accounts: one for public and one for private.

    Not sure why any adult with an IQ above 2 would think anyone would give up information their private accounts.

    Unless they're threatening them with expulsion now?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 11:29am

    The logic behind the increase in monitoring is flawed. Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased, even if the amount of actual violence hasn't. Students aren't more violent than ever, as stats compiled by the DOJ show.

    I'm rather unwilling to concede this point. Claiming that nothing should be done about student safety because the present level of violence is the same as the past level of violence is insufficient. You must also show that the present/past levels of violence are acceptable. I very much don't accept that present levels of violence are acceptable (or that any levels of violence are acceptable for that matter).

    Nor does it make much sense to me to complain about increased fear of school shootings when it's quite reasonable to suggest that the current level of concern over school shootings should have been the default over the last decade. This same logic would suggest that the current heightened concern over sexual assault is flawed because sexual assault has not increased, or that heightened concern over racial violence in the 60/70s was flawed because racial violence had not increased.

    Now, I agree that this particular solution is completely worthless and that schools should not be doing it... but that is because more social media monitoring won't make students safer and is an extensive violation of privacy (as you stated later) and not because the newly increased concern over student safety is invalid in itself.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Igualmente69 (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 11:53am

      Re:

      You must have misread the post. Violence isn't at the same level as before, it is much lower.
      "You must also show that the present/past levels of violence are acceptable. I very much don't accept that present levels of violence are acceptable (or that any levels of violence are acceptable for that matter)."
      And this is asinine, as it would allow increasing governmental power to near-totalitarian levels as long as even one person is subjected to violence. You can always "do more", but that doesn't mean that you should. Perfect safety will never exist and it should not be a goal as long as humans are humans.
      A free society accepts imperfections because the alternative is an unfree society that is (possibly slightly) more perfect.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 12:45pm

      Re:

      Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased

      Fear has certainly increased. But overall violence is down not up.
      You can cry "Think about the children" but will monitoring Facebook make them safer? Is this money well spent when the school is underfunded, the teachers are underpaid, and basic supplies are rationed and/or donated from the parents?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 2:59pm

        Re: Re:

        Teacher's underpaid is a myth. They are paid quite well because of the UNIONS. In fact, I think they're paid to much. Kids are getting dumber. Pay should be based on results.

        The biggest problem is the huge bureaucracy that is eating up funds that should be going to the students. Doesn't matter how much money you give schools, it's never enough. They'll suck up every last penny but it won't go to the students or improve the grades.

        Wasting their time spying on students like this outside of school on social media is beyond creepy. Money wasted on crap that doesn't do anything to make schools safer.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Gary (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 3:15pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Teacher's underpaid is a myth. They are paid quite well because of the UNIONS. In fact, I think they're paid to much. Kids are getting dumber. Pay should be based on results.

          I get it, you are against paying teachers - because you hate kids.
          And firefighters, and unions. Nurses - just playing cards on duty.

          Your facts are in question. But I'm sure you are a Fine Person.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 3:17pm

          Re: You obviously didn’t learn much.

          It sound like you should get a refund based on how poor your schooling was.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2019 @ 7:21am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "Kids are getting dumber."

          What a dumb thing to say

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 11:47am

    Hasn't there's been software around for protecting children from the dangers of the internet since as long as the internet has been around? Programs like NetNanny and others, widely deployed in schools and public libraries, which were seen as a joke back then by any computer-literate kid. Maybe that's a reason why they seemed to die out by the early 2000s. Are the new generation of softwares really much different from the old, other than perhaps having a better marketing team?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 12:13pm

    "Juvenile arrest rates reached their peak in 1996 and have declined 72% since that point"

    This does not show what you claim it shows at all..
    Arresting less teens does not equate to "schools are safer than ever" whatsoever.
    The vast majority of teen arrests will have nothing to do with either school or safety but will be for things like shoplifting at the mall.

    How about you look at the number of people killed or injured at school instead which has most definitely not been going down.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 1:03pm

      Re:

      How about you look at the number of people killed or injured at school instead which has most definitely not been going down.

      Maybe you should take your own advice.

      CDC: School-Associated Violent Death Study

      Bureau of Justice Statistics: Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2018

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 3:02pm

        Re: Re:

        Hey look, real facts!!!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        crade (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 3:22pm

        Re: Re:

        Here are a couple recent numbers
        https://www.chds.us/ssdb/incidents-by-year/
        https://www.chds.us/ssdb/number-killed-by-year/

        But I could be wrong I will fully admit I have not done a lot of digging and I don't really have a horse in the race. I do however take umbrage at claiming a downward trend in teen arrests must mean schools are safer.. It's a huge leap.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Thad (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 3:52pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          But I could be wrong I will fully admit I have not done a lot of digging and I don't really have a horse in the race. I do however take umbrage at claiming a downward trend in teen arrests must mean schools are safer.. It's a huge leap.

          Which would be a fair criticism if that were the only metric used in the article. It isn't.

          Indeed, this is the sentence before the one that brings up arrest statistics:

          Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased, even if the amount of actual violence hasn't.

          Your statistics are explicitly related to school shootings. The article does not posit that schools are safer from shootings than ever; it posits that schools are safer from violence than ever. Shootings are a subset of violence. "School shootings have increased" and "school violence has decreased" are not contradictory statements.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            That One Guy (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 4:14pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Fears of school shootings and other on-campus violence have increased, even if the amount of actual violence hasn't.

            Or as Dara O'Briain noted in one of his standup routines...

            'Well so what? You know what I mean? Zombies are at an all-time low level, but the fear of zombies could be incredibly high. Doesn't mean you have to have government policies to deal with the fear of zombies, it's ridiculous for Christ's sake.'

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            crade (profile), 7 May 2019 @ 6:54am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Fair point. I knew there must be another article that I had missed!
            Unfortunately it only covers until 2017. This article says a total of 38 violent deaths occurred at school in 2015-2016..
            meanwhile the article I linked shows 56 in 2018 from shootings alone..

            As far as I can gather.. fear of school shootings is on the rise (and fear of "other violence is not on the rise) because school shootings are high right now.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 2:05pm

    How does this work? I am assuming these are private cell phones and private social media accounts that the school thinks they have unfettered access to.

    Where does the school think their authority originates? They have no jurisdiction and no authority outside the school grounds.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 5:50pm

      Re:

      From what I understand this doesn't involve the schools forcing the students to cough up their account info.
      The monitoring is done based on the names, locations, keywords and such as scanned off Facebook. Then they build it out - Judy Smith in Oakport is friends with Bobby and Sally, also from Oakport. And they all checked in at the school play.
      You should't be surprised how easy it is to build up a large database of names. Even if half of them are krap - monitoring companies sell Fear not accuracy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 3:12pm

    I can see now why, when I used run a VPN when I ran my online radio station, why, I used to see a lot of connections from high schools, going to social media sites. Their encrypted connection to my proxy meant that what they doing could not be monitored by network admins.

    Those high school students who were using my proxy did not violate the CFAA in any way, so dont get me started on that.

    Bypassing network filters does not violate the CFAA, so these students all over the United States who were using my VPN to access social media from school did not break any federal laws.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 May 2019 @ 9:16pm

      Re:

      Bypassing network filters does not violate the CFAA, so these students all over the United States who were using my VPN to access social media from school did not break any federal laws.

      The resident trolls know this, and are absolutely angry this isn't the case.

      This is also why they regularly masturbate to the memory of Aaron Schwartz's suicide.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    cattress (profile), 6 May 2019 @ 11:49pm

    Who they gonna call?

    So when some school administrator comes across some threatening or concerning social media, which we have already seen that these administrators have zero ability to determine what sorts of activities are actual cause for concern versus something like sharing an image of a Lego gun, what helpful action are they going to take? Call the police or FBI? The Parkland shooter was all over local and federal law enforcement's radar, but no money to steal or need to dress up in riot gear and play pretend hero in getting a teenager to professional mental health services he needed. Are these administrators going to try to suspend or expel a troubled teens, further removing him from people and services he may desperately need, or fomenting more deep seated anger? Quite frankly, I think pissing away money on this software should make them more liable, even personally. Kids, all kids, troubled or not, need authentic interaction with compassionate, caring, empathetic adults outside of their own parents. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean that other adults actually replace parents by any means. Rather, teachers and school staff who give individual attention and meaningful interaction that makes kids feel valued and like they matter to the community. School administrators need to jump into the mix and get to know the students just as much as the teachers and support staff, instead of just managing the so-called problem kids. Stop sitting in an office looking at reports and coming up with potential liabilities to predicate stripping privacy or fun from childhood.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 7 May 2019 @ 10:06am

    While most of these tools do nothing more than scrap public posts from social media platforms...

    How do they "scrap" the posts? :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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