Schools are Watching Students’ Social Media, Raising Questions about Free Speech

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PBS NewsHour
June 20, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Schools are paying a lot more attention to what students post online, and that can have severe consequences for students and schools.

Harvard University withdrew the admittance of at least 10 incoming freshmen who had reportedly posted violent, racist and sexually explicit content in a private Facebook group.

High schools are cracking down, too, with some hiring outside companies to police social media posts.

But monitoring online behavior is difficult, and civil rights groups are watching.

Special correspondent Lisa Stark with our partner Education Week visited a school district in Arizona.

LISA STARK: It’s just before summer break at Dysart High School in Surprise, Arizona, outside Phoenix. Students are eating lunch, signing yearbooks, and they’re immersed in social media.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube. More than 90 percent of teens say they go online every day, and nearly a quarter are online almost constantly.

Let me ask you, first of all, do you all have phones?


STUDENT: Yes, we do.

LISA STARK: Do you ever not have a phone with you?


STUDENT: It’s always on.

LISA STARK: We sat down with four Dysart students to talk about how they use social media.

Snapchat, I post every single day, like, every day, all day.

STUDENT: I always like post my thoughts, certain way I’m feeling. Depends on how I’m feeling that day.

STUDENT: When I’m done with all my work, and if I don’t have any work from other classes, I just go on my phone and see what’s going on.

STUDENT: I don’t really care who sees it. Like, I’m just posting it because I think it’s public. Like, I’m open about it.

LISA STARK: The problem for schools, what happens on social media doesn’t always stay on social media.

ALYSSA WAMSLEY, Student, Dysart High School: I see a lot of bullying on Facebook that it transfers to the school. And then, like, at the beginning of this year, this girl got into an altercation on Facebook, and she ended up fighting the girl at school.

AMY HARTJEN, Principal, Dysart High School: When something’s posted on social media and it’s being talked about on campus and it disrupts learning, that’s when we have to step in and decide if there’s something that we need to react to.

LISA STARK: Nationwide, a growing number of districts are watching what’s posted online for anything that might impact their schools.

Principal Amy Hartjen says the number one concern is safety.

What’s like, OK, we have to get involved here? Bullying, would that be a red line?

AMY HARTJEN: Absolutely, threats, intimidations.

LISA STARK: What if someone posts something that is offensive language, racist, sexist?

AMY HARTJEN: Absolutely.

LISA STARK: Really? And why would that be a red line?

AMY HARTJEN: Because that is just — it’s against the campus culture.

LISA STARK: Students threatening to harm others or themselves sometimes telegraph that on social media, and districts have been sued for not paying attention to online posts.

These days, the schoolyard has new boundaries.

ZACHERY FOUNTAIN, Communications Director, Dysart USD: The information space is just as important as the physical space anymore, because it has that ability to snowball at a really rapid pace.

LISA STARK: Zachery Fountain is the Dysart District Communications Chief, and point man on social media. He trains staff on how to document troublesome posts.

ZACHERY FOUNTAIN: That’s teaching them things like asking for a screen shot of what has happened, understanding that a message could disappear in five seconds, as soon as it’s brought to their attention by a student.

LISA STARK: Nationwide, both public and private schools keep tabs on social media in a variety of ways: hiring firms to actively monitor students’ accounts, encouraging students to report anything worrisome, friending students to gain access to posts that may not be public, and through simple alerts every time the district and its schools are mentioned in any type of media.

There’s anecdotal evidence, but no hard data, to show that early identification of troubling social media posts can help schools head off problems.

School officials here insist they are most concerned about safety. They’re not trying to pry into students’ lives. But civil rights and privacy groups say it can be a slippery slope and that some districts have gone too far, that they have violated students’ constitutional rights.

Students have been disciplined for liking other posts, for private online chats that others made public, for forwarding racist posts, even in order to denounce them.

CHAD MARLOW, American Civil Liberties Union: Schools need to think about, how do we take on these issues in an appropriate way that doesn’t have kind of the collateral damage effect of destroying students’ privacy and free speech rights?

LISA STARK: Chad Marlow is with the American Civil Liberties Union. He says, first and foremost, school shouldn’t have open-ended access to students’ social media accounts.

You’re saying no fishing expeditions?

CHAD MARLOW: No fishing expeditions. And the way to do that is by not allowing passwords to be turned over, what we call shoulder surfing. Log onto your account, and the teacher will stand over the student’s shoulder and say, scroll, scroll, scroll.

LISA STARK: Are you asking students for passwords?

WENDY KLARKOWSKI, School Resource Officer, Shadow Ridge High School: No.

LISA STARK: Or log-in information or anything?


LISA STARK: School resource officer Wendy Klarkowski is assigned to Shadow Ridge High School in the Dysart district. Her morning routine includes searching for school-related posts on social media. She’s uncovered criminal activity.

WENDY KLARKOWSKI: A young man had decided to bring some marijuana-laced brownies to school, and he advertised them on Twitter and, meet me in the cafeteria. We got him with all the brownies still on him.

LISA STARK: And possible campus disruptions.

WENDY KLARKOWSKI: Some kids were going to protest something they thought was unfair, and it was all over Twitter, so we were able to get the kids that were leading it, actually, the night before, so that they put an end to that, so it didn’t disrupt the campus.

LISA STARK: But why isn’t that their free speech right to protest something they’re not happy about?

WENDY KLARKOWSKI: It is their right to protest, but it is not their right to disturb an educational institution.

LISA STARK: The ACLU’s Marlow worries about districts stifling free speech.

CHAD MARLOW: It is very important to draw the line between punishing an action that occurs on social media vs. thoughts that are expressed on social media. Once you start policing and punishing thoughts, you are into very, very dangerous territory.

LISA STARK: Two of the Dysart students we spoke with say they tread more carefully online after each posted a disparaging remark about one of their teachers.

ALYSSA WAMSLEY: I made a reference to one of my teachers last year on Facebook, and I almost got a referral for it, for what I said about her. And then me and the teacher ended up talking, and now she’s my favorite teacher ever.


HADIN KHAN, Graduate, Dysart High School: It was funny at first. Then I was like, OK, I need to take some precautions for next time, when I’m angry about something, not mention names or anything. I could say English teacher, as opposed to saying their name.

LISA STARK: So, you are censoring yourself in a way, right?


HADIN KHAN: Yes, kind of. Yes.

LISA STARK: How do you feel about having to do that?


HADIN KHAN: I don’t really have a problem with it, because it’s not that serious of an issue.

LISA STARK: Superintendent Gail Pletnick insists the district is careful not to violate free speech or privacy rights.

GAIL PLETNICK, Superintendent, Dysart Unified School District: We’re not crossing that line. We’re not monitoring people 24/7. We’re not the social media police. But we are concerned about anything that we feel will be harmful to our students.

LISA STARK: Pletnick says technology changes so quickly that schools can find themselves operating in a gray area.

GAIL PLETNICK: Those laws, those rules, those guidelines that we’re going to have to use are being developed. So, we’re really not only flying this plane while we build it, while it’s being designed.

LISA STARK: It can be a rough ride, so Dysart and other districts are increasingly starting to teach digital citizenship, the responsible use of technology, to impress upon students to think before they click.

STUDENT: I like that. That’s cute.

LISA STARK: For the PBS NewsHour and Education Week, I’m Lisa Stark in Surprise, Arizona.

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