After last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, law enforcement were criticized for failing to react to red flags on the perpetrator’s social media. Threatening social media behavior is increasingly common, and school districts often feel the need to monitor the internet for signs of potential safety incidents.

Social media threat services offer one solution. Companies like Social Sentinel and Geo Listening create a geofence around an educational institution and scan public social media within that radius. If a post contains a word or phrase that relates to violence or school, then the post is flagged for review and may be sent to a school administrator within a report. School administrators may then respond to the post as needed.

These services can play a vital role in school safety plans, but some fear that they do not adequately consider students’ privacy interests. For instance, many students decide to make their social media private or to delete inappropriate posts as they grow older. Social media threat services, however, allow school districts to retain a copy of these formerly-public and old posts. As a result, old student social media may be obtained through an open records request or used to confront a student about past behavior, which could negatively impact a student in the future.

In 2015, California passed legislation to address student information and social media threat services. Section 49073.6 of the California Education Code requires school districts to notify students and families about any contracts with social media monitoring companies. Schools must also notify students of their rights to access and to request amendment of social media reports. Finally, schools must destroy any information gleaned from these services within a year of the student turning eighteen or leaving the school district.

California has taken an important first step in addressing student social media, and it will be interesting to see if other states follow its lead. Laws like this may help ensure that student privacy interests are considered as school safety plans engage with new technologies.

Alice Haston


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