It’s Saturday night and you're Instagramming pics at the party, cracking jokes on Vine and quoting lyrics on Twitter. Your school administrators are the last thing on your mind -- but you may be the first thing on theirs.
Thousands of public schools hire for-profit companies to monitor students' social media activity. The given objective is to prevent violence, bullying, suicide, substance abuse and other safety concerns, but it's leading to an unprecedented level of surveillance, from where teens go and what they say to whether they practice bicycle safety. And it has sparked allegations of racial profiling.
MTV News spoke with the CEO of a company that offers this service to schools, a former student who is challenging his punishment over a YouTube video, and an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. They all gave their own perspectives on why monitoring programs have become so prevalent in recent years, what it's like to face consequences in school for speech made off-campus, and whether any of this is constitutional.
Students nationwide have gotten in hot water for speaking their minds online ... and sharing their favorite lyrics.
Last month, the New York Police Department investigated a 15-year-old student who posted the above Johnny Cash lyrics on his Instagram account. The school's principal later admitted, "[T]he student’s message was not meant to be a threat to anyone." In 2013, an 18-year-old spent three weeks in jail after posting rap lyrics on Facebook; a grand jury later rejected the indictment.
Misinterpreting lyrics is one thing, but disciplining students for publicly criticizing teachers is quite another. In 2010, hip-hop artist and then senior Taylor Bell -- who goes by the rap name Tbizzle Dat Bellboy -- got suspended from Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi after he posted a song on his personal YouTube and Facebook accounts that called out his school's gym teachers for allegedly sexually harassing students, including his female friends. For example, Bell said one coach told a lesbian student that "if she wasn't so gay, [the coach] would 'turn her out."
Bell booked some time at a studio, and the alleged inappropriate behavior was "just running through my mind like a whirlwind... I made a beat and my fingers just couldn’t stop writing. It just was so easy because it was so true." Bell's attorney has signed affidavits from all of the women who accuse the teachers of harassment, though no teacher was ever reprimanded.
Bell posted the NSFW track -- which you can listen to here -- while off of school property. He does not recall any disruption of school or class resulting from the song (the legal standard required for a school to curtail speech, according to a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision), but it got noticed and shared by a large number of students.
He was called out of class by administrators and legal officials, who asked him to take the song down. When he refused, he was kicked out of school. He then sat at home for two months, waiting to be brought before the school board. Bell recalled his horrified mindset during this time, when his academic future was uncertain: "There was nothing on my record, as far as getting in trouble, besides two tardies. I was like, this one song I did off-campus, is it going to cost me my future?"
At a subsequent court hearing, a judge ruled that the school district was right to suspend Bell.
“I was at the point of, OK, maybe I should just hush up and take the [suspension]," Bell recalled, "but then my lawyer just called me and said, 'This is not right. We have to push this, because this is the First Amendment. This is civil rights that we’re talking about.’"
Bell's lawyer appealed the district's decision and, five years later, they are still arguing their case. The most recent hearing was earlier this month at the Fifth Court of Appeals in Oxford, Mississippi. Bell is seeking damages of only $1, because he said this is not about money for him: "I don’t want this to happen to anyone else... Either way it goes, I want people to know their rights.”
Is this about saving students' lives ... or knowing all about their lives?
Chris Frydrych is CEO and founder of California-based company Geo Listening. According to him, as of 2013, his company monitors the social media accounts of students from 3,000 schools. (He won't reveal exactly how many it is today.)
With sales text like "Tuning you into the student conversation" and "Don't miss out on the opportunity to listen," Frydrych believes a watchful eye is necessary to keep teenagers safe.
“Wouldn’t it be great if a kid didn’t have to have two bad days in a row?" he told MTV News. "I’m pretty sure if you don’t have that second bad day -- because an adult took time to say hello or talk to them or engage with them about whatever it is that’s troubling them -- we never get to Sandy Hook, we never get to a self-harming child, we never get to a suicidal child."
(Frydrych was cautious to add that not every tragedy is foreseeable: "You don’t want to make promises you know you can’t keep -- at least I won't, and my company will not.")
So, when does Geo Listening report students to school officials -- or, as Frydrych referred to them, "trusted adults"?
He declined to provide exact policies, but system triggers can include "post[ing] that they’re feeling bad about their grades” or using the term “emo,” which is often used to describe pop bands such as 5SoS. While many parents and students are likely to understand why schools would investigate suicidal or threatening messages, they may not be aware that alarm bells could go off for incredibly broad behavior.
“[A safety threat] could be everything from bicycling or skateboarding without a helmet," Frydrych said. "It could be speeding with no seat belts."
Another type of content that Geo Listening considers a risk to "Online Safety": posts that may embarrass a teen later in life. School officials could confront students about what they deem to be an ill-considered joke or suggestive video.
"We don’t believe that only CEOs of big companies should have brand protection,” Frydrych said. "It gives [students] the opportunity to say, 'You know what? This is going to hurt my brand.'"
Is that kind of forethought a school's job to impart, or a parent's job? Frydrych said that currently he sells his program to schools because most parents can't afford it (though he's working on versions of his program that would be price-appropriate for parents); Glendale Unified School District in California reportedly paid Geo Listening $40,000 for its services, and Frydrych said he bills at the same rate to every district he works with.
Good luck opting out, if your profile is public.
Frydrych insisted that "anyone can opt out," but first his company must verify their parents' identities.
"We have to validate who you are before we just remove you from the list, right?" Frydrych said. "So we have to get on, literally, do a FaceTime with the person and be able to see their face and their ID; we need to verify that the adults in the room are parents or guardians of the student, so that way if we are going to truly not collect on somebody, then we won’t collect on them."
(Frydrych added, "The unfortunate thing is that -- well, I won’t say it’s unfortunate -- is that, no one has opted out yet.")
Some state governments have expressed concern over collecting this data on students.
“There was a law passed in California because of our company,” Frydrych acknowledged. “There was concern over the fact that we were going to hold onto this information and use it or sell it to colleges or job apps and things like that in the future. Basically, it governs how we can do our work. We can only report things in the state of California that pertain directly to school or student safety.”
But what are the limits when "safety" is defined as "skateboarding without a helmet" and "brand protection"?
Are schools legally allowed to do this in the first place?
In 2014, an Alabama school district halted a monitoring program after they were accused of targeting minority students. Officials in Huntsville, Alabama, paid the company SAFE ("Students Against Fear"), run by an ex-FBI agent, $157,000 to monitor students' social media activity to prevent instances of violence. The program led to the expulsion of 14 students, 12 of whom were African-American.
The district hesitantly released those statistics after it came under fire by local reporters and the American Civil Liberties Union, and the program was eventually stopped as part of a longstanding desegregation order against the district.
“The ACLU has real concerns that when schools monitor social media speech by students, that there is an unfortunate possibility of racially biased results,” said Lee Rowland, an attorney at the organization.
(SAFE and Geo Listening are separate companies. Frydrych said his analysts are "really great people," who would not racially profile students, though he won't disclose the demographics of the students that his company monitors.)
Rowland explained that "students retain a First Amendment right to engage in free speech so long as it does not disrupt the school environment," so when class is in session, "kids are generally going to have fewer rights..."
The problem that's beginning to emerge, she said, is "allow[ing] those boundaries to grow so that schools have more and more power over the speech of their students, even when that speech is made at home or made online.”
School administrators are legally allowed to question you about public speech you've made online. If a school employee merely asks you about content you've shared, without disciplining you or forcing you to hit delete, it isn't a curtailment of your free speech. (According to Geo Listening, "Students remain free to express their views, provided it is speech otherwise protected by the First Amendment in the school setting." But of course, it monitors students out of the school setting.)
In order for your rights to have been violated, you have must faced some kind of action. If that's the case, and you truly feel your right to free speech has been infringed upon, Rowland recommends appealing the decision and contacting your local ACLU affiliate.
“We think [monitoring students' social media is] super creepy, and we oppose it, and the school has no business proactively monitoring outside-of-school speech," Rowland said. "Part of a public school’s duty is to teach students our constitutional values. We want to encourage students to speak their minds, to share their opinions ... especially when they’re not in class.”