May 7, 2019 in News by RBN

Published: May 6, 2019


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 storiesfollowed, 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.