On the Ed Beat: Does your school monitor students' social-media activity?

The lowdown: Schools’ access to students’ social media

Should schools be allowed to monitor students’ personal social-media accounts? That’s a question lawmakers nationwide have debated as they try to balance efforts to crack down on cyberbullying with students’ right to privacy.

In his story “Schools Weigh Access to Students’ Social-Media Passwords,” Education Week reporter Benjamin Herold explores the backlash some schools are facing over regulating and punishing speech created off-campus on personal time.

“As far as I understand, schools have every right to monitor what’s done on their property, with their equipment, on school-issued accounts,” Herold said.  “It’s the monitoring of students’ private accounts, accessed off school ground/property, that is the contentious issue.” 

In California, parents criticized a school district that paid a third-party company to monitor students online in search of suicidal behavior, drug use and bullying. In some circumstances, criticism has led to lawsuts. In Minnesota, a school district agreed to rewrite its social-media privacy policy and to pay a student damages after it forced a student to log in to her Facebook account in the principal’s office so she could be disciplined for private chat messages she created and sent at home on her family’s computer. 

“Social media is a huge part of people’s lives, and it is raising all kinds of new legal questions,” Herold said. “Does the government have the right to search your private social media account? How is that different from searching your locker?”

While 12 states have passed laws about a school’s authority to access its students’ social-media accounts, most apply only at the college level. Many state legislatures have not yet clarified this issue. Federal rules do not exist.

Do administrators monitor students’ social-media accounts at your school? Does your state, or district, have a policy regulating how far administrators can peek into a students’ off-campus life?

Read Benjamin Herold’s story on the Education Week website here.

Think about it

  • Is there a difference between a school punishing a student for a post to a public Twitter account versus demanding that a student provide the login for a non-public Twitter account?
  • What is more important: a student’s right to be free from bullying or a student’s right to speak freely without fear of punishment? How can both interests be satisfied?

  • The Fourth Amendment says the government cannot search for evidence of a crime unless there is some reasonable justification. Is it a “search” to read a student’s private messages on Twitter or Facebook? 

  • Could there be a reasonable basis for a school to insist on seeing private messages? What situations might justify it? 

  • How is school administrators’ social-media monitoring different than searching a student’s locker? How about a backpack? 

Own the story

Do administrators at your school monitor students’ social-media activity? If so, do they monitor beyond school grounds? What are administrators hoping to find? And what happens if they do find something? 

Your school’s policies could affect students’ privacy rights, their free-speech rights and their personal safety. That’s why localization of Benjamin Herold’s Education Week story is important. 

First, find out if your state has a student social-media privacy law or is considering creating one. Louisiana, Michigan and Wisconsin ban schools from demanding students’ social-media login information, while Illinois limits schools’ authority but stops short of a total ban. 

The National Council of State Legislatures’ website outlines state-by-state laws and proposed laws, available here.

Then, Herold said student reporters should “find your district’s and school’s written policies, and how key officials (school board, superintendent, principals, etc.) interpret and enforce them.”

Next, interview school officials to get a sense of your school’s policies. 

“If your school is monitoring student social media,” Herold said, “ask the basics: How? Who? Why? Since when? What’s the rationale? What has been found?”

Ask whether the school has a contract with a company like Geo Listening that is paid to read what students post. If the answer is “yes,” ask for a copy of the contract and payment records.

Lastly, talk with the people these policies most directly affect: students.

“Ask local students, and parents, and administrators what they see as the pros and cons of schools trying to monitor those things on social media,” Herold said.

Tips from a pro

As you approach the story, like with any story, don’t begin with an agenda. 

“Very few times in my career have I found malicious people who are willfully trying to do wrong,” Herold said. “More often, issues are complicated, and people struggle to figure out what to do.”

Instead, give people “the benefit of the doubt,” Herold said, and let them explain their rationale. 

But then, dig deeper. Don’t just rely on what administrators say. Ask for public documents.

“As for any contracts with any outside firms for any purpose related to student social media accounts,” Herold said. “Put your request in writing, as a formal open records request.”

If you’ve developed a positive working relationship with any teachers, administrators or a principal,  seek their input. Before you make a formal request for public documents, Herold said, do interviews and gather opinions informally. 

To make the records-request process easier, use the Student Press Law Center’s Public Records Letter Generator, which can be found here.

Read Benjamin Herold’s story on the Education Week website here.