Jackson County Schools will comb through students’ public postings on social media to ferret out threats of violence, drug use, bullying and indications of suicidal behavior.
This is an apparent first in North Carolina, though other school districts are considering doing the same. A Southern California school district helped pioneer the process last year; it found itself in the national spotlight debating privacy rights of students.
“There is no expectation of privacy. That is the policy,” Jackson Schools Technology Director David Proffitt said. “Anything that creates a significant disruption to teaching or learning is our business.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said Tuesday this is the first time they’ve looked at the issue. Spokesman Mike Meno expressed more concern about a possible chilling of free speech than potential privacy-rights violations.
“This is a state where 16-year-olds can be charged as adults and face jail time for certain types of speech,” Meno said.
North Carolina two years ago became the first state in the nation to pass a law that allows students to be criminally charged if they use computers with the “intent to intimidate or torment” school staff.
Jackson County will start a pilot project this fall at 863-student Smoky Mountain High School. The initial contract between Jackson County and Vermont-based Social Sentinel is $9,500 for one year. The price then drops to an annual fee of $7,000. This base rate is secured for three years.
Gary Margolis, president of Social Sentinel, said that his company doesn’t look at the private correspondence of students. The company uses computer algorithms to scan Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites for indicators of potential problems, he said. The company establishes a “geo-fence,” or a virtual boundary. Notifications are sent when geo-fences are crossed.
“We have to go where our children are,” said Margolis, a retired police officer. “And our children are in two places now -- in the schools and in the digital space.”
Superintendent Mike Murray said the purpose is student safety. “If it saves one child from cyberbullying, hurting themselves or from school violence, then we feel it is worth every penny,” he said.
Murray said the school district respects rights to free speech and privacy. “We will limit our use of the Social Sentinel service to safety and security issues,” he said. “We have a responsibility to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to protect our students, staff and visitors.”
Jackson County Schools also plans to implement a “shared-safety program” to educate students, parents and staff about online safety and gather information about steps the schools can take to ensure safety.
Assistant Superintendent Kim Elliott said the local school system is committed to providing a venue to ensure students understand “how to be responsible and safe in online conversations and environments.”
A Pew Research Center study conducted in 2012 found eight in 10 students use social media, with 73 percent of “wired” American teens using social networking websites, up from 55 percent in 2006.