One North Carolina school district is going to great lengths to monitor its students' social media habits, paying thousands to a third party to scan students' posts.
Jackson County Schools are contracting with Social Sentinel Inc. in a pilot project that will use computer algorithms to scan student social media posts for safety or security threats, reports The Sylva Herald. The program will be launched at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva this fall, and will cost $9,500 for the first year.
But will students be paying the price in privacy?
How Will Students Be Monitored?
The 863 students at Smoky Mountain High will be the guinea pigs for Jackson County's social media monitoring experiment this fall. In a statement, the district notes the program will only be monitoring "publicly available social media streams" for potential threats. Gary Margolis, president of Social Sentinel Inc., reinforced this distinction by telling the Herald that the company would not be looking at "the private correspondence of students."
Ever since Facebook relaxed its rules for teens posting to the public sphere, gobs of adolescent angst and emotional flotsam have surfaced on a very public and very searchable social media platform. The same may be true of Twitter and Instagram, both of which allow public posting by high school-aged students.
Jackson County remains resolute that it will "respect the right to free speech and privacy" in the implementation of this new plan. However, Jackson School Technology Director David Proffitt unrepentantly told the Herald that "[t]here is no expectation of privacy."
"Anything that creates a significant disruption to teaching or learning," Proffitt said, "is our business."
Not the 1st School to Monitor Students' Social Media
Although Jackson County is apparently the first school district in North Carolina to attempt this kind of social media monitoring, it isn't the first in the nation to do so. Schools in Glendale, California, began tracking students on various social platforms last year.
Schools like those in Glendale and Jackson County may be hoping to catch threats of school attacks, bullying, or suicide warning signs soon enough to intervene. However, Mike Meno with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina cautioned that this tool may be used to chill free speech under threat of criminal penalties.
Perhaps this pilot program will scare students into checking their privacy settings -- or at least make them think twice about sharing too much on social media.