Are Schools Monitoring Social Media Spying?

It seems like there are a group of families in New Jersey who don’t understand the meaning of the words “public” and “private”.

Parents of students at North Jersey’s High Point Regional High School are up in arms after one student was banned from attending the senior class formal after a tweet that was seen by the Principal. The tweet in question, on the day of the formal:

schools monitor social media

“Turned up” means drunk, or otherwise under the influence of something.

As a principal, if you are made aware that a student is going to show up at a school sanctioned event under the influence – because of something that student posted publicly – that is in no way spying. Acting on that information seems like the prudent thing to do, and well within the responsibilities of a principal. Actually, it seems like the only thing to do.

The families seem to be of a different mind. According to an article in the New Jersey Herald, parents are indeed suspicious:

“Over the past year, however, several other parents, teachers, and graduates of High Point — all of whom have asked for their names not to be published — have related similar stories of students being called to the office or questioned based on suspicion of activities frowned upon by the administration. Some suggested it was fairly common knowledge that this was being done.”

According to the same article, Superintendent Scott Ripley had the following to say:

“High Point administration reviews only those materials brought to its attention or that [are] publicly available. At no time does the administration pressure students into disclosing private posts on social media, nor does the administration engage in subterfuge in order to view such information.”

That’s pretty clear. The school is using the resources available to monitor risks in its community. That is not spying.

If what the teen tweeted about the formal was a joke, this is unfortunate, but if missing a party is the lone consequence then that is a lesson well learned.

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PARCC Testing and Social Media Spying

A tempest in a social media teapot is brewing this week around PARCC testing of New Jersey students and social media actions by those students. The issue highlights one very real way that teens, parents and the media (who should know better) misunderstand some core ideas around online activity and privacy.

The PARCC tests (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) are being conducted in New Jersey and a number of other states this month. They are one of a new breed of standardized tests born of the Common Core movement, and have been wildly unpopular, particularly among parents.

The story at hand is this: Someone leaked an email from one New Jersey superintendent to others informing them that Pearson, the company who designed and manages the PARCC tests, had detected that one student had tweeted specifics about the test. Pearson referred the incident to the New Jersey Department of Education, who in turn contacted the school district to discipline the student. Cue the outraged headlines:

Daily Kos 3/14/2015
Asbury Park Press 3/14/2015


And lots of tweets and Facebook posts like this one:

By this logic, I just spied on Mary Hufford above. That is obviously incorrect.

Here’s the thing: If you post something publicly online, it is public – no different than saying it on TV or printing it in a newspaper. If parents don’t like Pearson, the NJ DOE or anyone else reading their kids’ tweets, their child can set his account to private. Pearson can’t read your child’s text messages, after all. It’s that simple.

A twitter search for the term #PARCC yields thousand of results. Your child’s tweet about a test may be a needle in a haystack, but your only real privacy defense is to not post it at all.

Anybody is free to read and interact with public social media posts. If such a post violates a school code of conduct or established testing rules, one can expect that if discovered, the person posting will be dealt with. That is not spying.



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NJ Schools Must Implement Electronic Communications Policies

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill into law on April 24th that will require each school district in the state to create and oversee a set of guidelines for electronic communications between teachers and students. These guidelines need to be in place by mid August, before the start of next school year.

The New Jersey School Boards Association has taken a first step, by issuing a draft reference manual to help school districts craft their own set of rules, specifically referencing cell phones, email and social media. The highlights are as follows:

  • School employees may not “friend” students on networking sites without written approval of the school principal
  • All electronic communication with students must be through the district’s computer and telephone systems
  • All electronic communication sent by coaches and extracurricular advisors to students must be sent to all participants
  • School employees will not give out their private cell phone or home phone numbers to students without approval of the principal

Within these recommended guidelines, some types of communication are (obviously) not permitted, including sexual content, content related to drugs, alcohol, illegal activities and anything in violation of school policies.

teach-social-mediaMost of that seems like common sense, except the idea that social media connections between students and teachers need be pre approved, which means that they aren’t going to happen at all if policies are implemented in this way. There is some irony here – in January NJ passed a law that will make it the first state in the nation to mandate social media education for middle school students. Teachers will be instructing on social media use but prevented from actually using it with students.

To our mind, a better solution would be to require educators to use school-administered social media accounts rather that their personal accounts, as has been required by recently enacted New York City school electric communications regulations. Rather than connecting with students as the teacher could use

Consider the following quote from the article linked above:

The problem is not the interaction but the improper interaction between people. This is where the line should be drawn. Technology is the way of the future. Limiting its use in any way is basically limiting education.

Keeping teachers’ personal lives separate from their professional ones is a good idea. Teaching social media while at the same time prohibiting teacher/student interaction on any social networks seems likely to fall short of the desired mark.


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Minors Sexting and Child Pornography Charges – What is Justice?

Are child pornography charges ever appropriate in teen sexting cases? We asked Reddit, and the responses might surprise you.

redditWe wrote earlier this month about how a New Jersey teen sexting case looks like it will end up in criminal charges for young two individuals.

In the case, a West Orange boy is accused of sending nude photos of his ex-girlfriend to another girl, who then allegedly shared the pictures with friends and may have posted them online. Both of the teens, 16-years-old, have been charged with distributing child pornography and endangering the welfare of a child. The victim is 17 years old.

The case raises a number of questions, and child porn charges for teens over pictures that were acquired legitimately seem very steep. We posted a question and link to the story on the popular social networking site Reddit, to see what kind of justice the average American would like to see applied in cases such as these. To get an “average” opinion, we posted our question in the r/NewJersey subreddit, not a parenting forum. As background, since the average Reddit user is around 30 years old, many of the folks who replied probably aren’t even parents.

On the question of whether child porn charges are appropriate, some of the NO answers:

It’s a bit much. Sending a nude pic of one of their peers is not the same as child pornography. They should be punished but let’s not be ridiculous.


It’s ridiculous that the penalty for teen sexting is worse than the actual consequence of teen sexting.


They should not be charged the same as a full grown adult distributing images of child sex abuse. they should receive something APPROPRIATE for distributing images of a minor that where voluntarily taken and sent.


I know when I was 16 I wasn’t thinking correctly with a lot of decisions I was making. They should be charged with something but child porn? That’s life ruining, in prison you’re going to get raped and beat the f*** up.

and finally

They really want to institutionalize these kids at an early age. Whether it’s in public schools, juvy, or prison, they want these kids in the system and mindlessly obeying authority from as early an age as possible.

It’s f***ing disgusting. These are kids man. Can you remember what you were like at 16? I was a dumb-ass, immature little punk as were most kids.

On the YES, it’s appropriate side of the ledger, here’s the most popular answer:

As the images were sent without the consent of the girl — who was under 18 — then yes, they made the right call. F*** this “dumb teen” bulls**t. At 16 you fully understand that individuals have rights and privacy. This isn’t one of those times where a teenager gets in trouble for sending THEIR pictures; this is someone “leaking” picture that they had no authority to share.

and also

Agreed, I understand the penalty is harsh, but this sending pictures of your ex to get back at them has got to stop. Those pictures never go away once they are posted, these kids need to understand that.

On whether the victim, if she took the original photos or agreed to have them taken, bears any responsibility:

Why then did the original sender of her own nude photos not get arrested for child pornography? She would be just as guilty


I mean if they’re going to charge them, they might as well charge the girl who took the picture of herself. This really isn’t in the spirit of the law.

the third like this

If the subject of the photos took the photos and sent them in the first place, she should be charged as well.

Opinions are mixed, but most respondents are willing to assign some level of blame to the teens in this case, and some form of punishment for the accused. We’re not sure whether teen sexual activity has increased, but the ease with which provocative photos can be shared has skyrocketed. A constant dialog between teens and parents is needed to minimize the chances of your family finding itself in a similar situation.


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Should Schools Teach Social Media?

The groundswell of interest in the question of whether schools should be teaching social media to students has been growing of late, and we don’t expect it to die down any time soon. After all, schools are at least in part in the business of teaching (a) things that parents don’t have the time, knowledge or resources to teach themselves (bullseye!), and (b) will further the goal of growing a well rounded, “educated” child.

A bill currently being considered by the New Jersey Senate, which was approved by the Assembly earlier this year, would require some level of social media education in schools. According to bill sponsors:

“The advent of social media has made it a far more complicated and different world for adolescents growing up today than it was for their parents,” said Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr. (D-Middlesex). “Whether it’s adolescent impulsiveness or something more dangerous like bullying and harassment, it bears far more serious consequences when carried out over social media.

The above quote is one we agree with. The idea that schools should be tasked with teaching rudimentary personal image building and reputation management concepts, not so much. There are however, realities to consider:

“Social media is powering the world today and can affect college prospects, job opportunities and much more,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen).

We understand that in many states, schools are required to act on cyberbullying complaints. If this is the case, some education on how to stay on the right side of the school’s Harassment, Bullying and Intimidation policies with respect to electronic communications and social media is a good idea. Without it, schools would be in the bullying punishment business but not in the bullying prevention business.

school-teach-social-mediaWe would stop short of requiring or even encouraging schools to spend time teaching social media basics, or as a tool to enhance college or job prospects, except perhaps at the school counselor level.

Consider how quickly in-class social media course outlines would become stale. An article at Mind/Shift this week quotes Dennis Kelly, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, on the topic of keeping a curriculum even remotely current:

“It would be very difficult for schools trying to keep up with Instagram, Facebook, all of the apps that exist out there that are essentially market driven.”

In summary, character education and basic life skills need to be taught by parents.  Doing something bad online is still bad, and the child in question hasn’t stayed on the right side of right vs. wrong. Doing something that tarnished your reputation shows a possible lack of judgment, but schools can’t be held accountable for that. Any help that a school can provide in making sure that kids and teens are acting responsibly and respectfully is appreciated, but mandating across the board social media instruction by schools transfers a core parenting responsibility to an already overworked education system.

Disagree or have thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.


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