Last year, the Glendale, CA Unified School District hired Hermosa Beach-based Geo Listening to piece together the cyber tidbits of its 14,000 or so middle and high school students. The effort, for which the district is paying $40,500, is aimed at unearthing the earliest signs of bullying and self-harm.
The company's computers scour an untold number of public posts by students on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example. Analysts are alerted to terms that suggest suicidal thoughts, bullying, vandalism and even the use of obscenities, among other things. When they find posts they think should spur an intervention or anything that violates schools' student codes of conduct, the company alerts the campus.
While acknowledging some of the benefits, critics of the program contend that the monitoring could also have a chilling effect on students' free speech. And, they contend, it opens the possibility that students could be disciplined for comments made outside of school.
Students say the policing of their posts has stirred debate on campuses. Some are angry about what they see as an intrusion.
The Glendale district began a pilot program to monitor students online last year at its three high schools, Glendale, Hoover and Crescenta Valley.
"We think it's been working very well," Sheehan sid. "It's designed around student safety and making sure kids are protected."
The district does not provide a list of students to the company. Instead, it uses "deductive reasoning" to link public accounts to students, said Chris Frydrych, founder and chief executive of Geo Listening. He declined to be more specific.
Frydrych would not comment on how many school districts he has contracts with but said he expects the company to be monitoring about 3,000 schools worldwide by the end of the year.
He stressed that the company monitors only publicly available posts and isn't peeking into private correspondence or hacking into accounts. The company gathers what students are putting out there for the world to see, Frydrych said.
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