Our new reality: Social media monitoring in school

Is it our responsibility to monitor social media sites to help protect students from the dangers of bullying, drug use, violence, and suicide?

social-media-monitoringAs principal of Decatur Middle School, it is my goal to make sure that all of our students’ academic needs are met throughout the school year. However, as instances of bullying continue to plague students throughout the country, questions of whether we as principals and administrators should do more to monitor students’ online interactions come to the forefront. Is it our responsibility to monitor social media sites to help protect students from the dangers of bullying, drug use, violence, and suicide?

My colleagues and I continue to strive to strike the proper balance between ensuring students’ safety while maintaining their desired privacy. But with mobile phones more prevalent and social media use on Twitter and Facebook at an all-time high, it’s become increasingly more difficult to monitor effectively.

It’s equally as worrisome when you look at the statistics. Findings from The Cyber Bullying Research Center tell us that “70 percent of students hide their online behavior from parents and/or school administrators.” The research also brings to light the fact that “over 50 percent of students are bullied up to 20 percent of their time on social media and more than 50 percent do not tell anyone of the bullying they experience.”

So it’s no wonder that state laws are becoming more stringent on schools, placing an increased responsibility on us to monitor students’ social media accounts, and take preventative measures against threats of school violence or cyberbullying. Three states currently have laws about bullying and subsequent school responsibilities/liabilities, with New York’s law being the most stringent. It is written such that schools are held accountable for incidents stemming from bullying that could have been prevented with prior knowledge. Other state laws, such as ours in Indiana, require that school districts submit “contingency plans” that illustrate each schools effort to combat the issue of bullying.

(Next page: Software which identifies potential threats)

So naturally we took notice when we learned the company that supplied us with our teacher evaluation tool, Standard For Success, was adding a social media element to its offerings. The new Social Media and Cyber Bullying Monitoring (powered by Social NetWatcher) could be added to our already existing dashboard whereby allowing us to use a quality resource to monitor social media while being proactive in our bullying prevention efforts.

The proprietary software works as such that it uses a three-step “scanning” process that looks for keywords or terms.

  • Phase 1 analyzes high value keywords.
  • Phase 2 selects adjacent words and identifies sentence structure.
  • Phase 3 calculates intensity of threat. Threats are then categorized as Violence, Bullying or Suicide.

Only after passing these three phases is a school official notified of a potential threat.

Upon announcing this new service to the student body, we had a large number of students come out to listen to the presentations, and several signed up on the spot. Even though every parent has the ability to opt-out if they aren’t completely comfortable with their child’s social media accounts being monitored, normal social media activity is never read; in fact, no human eyes read any social media pages. It is all automated. So students and parents can feel comfortable that their privacy is never compromised.

While we have been fortunate that our school has yet to receive any threats or content deemed suspicious, we know that being on the front end of the issue is important so that instances like the suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, the Florida teen who jumped to her death following acts of bullying, is handled in time. We feel more confident knowing we now have a system in place to aid school officials in detecting – and stopping – situations that could potentially be very dangerous.  In our minds, thwarting even one act of violence or cyberbullying will make our use of the new software a success.

Mark Anderson is Principal of Decatur Middle School, Indianapolis, Indiana.

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