A suburban Los Angeles school district is now looking at the public postings on social media by middle and high school students, searching for possible violence, drug use, bullying, truancy and suicidal threats.
The district in Glendale, California, is paying $40,500 to a firm to monitor and report on 14,000 middle and high school students' posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media for one year.
Though critics liken the monitoring to government stalking, school officials and their contractor say the purpose is student safety.
As classes began this fall, the district awarded the contract after it earlier paid the firm, Geo Listening, $5,000 last spring to conduct a pilot project monitoring 9,000 students at three high schools and a middle school. Among the results was a successful intervention with a student "who was speaking of ending his life" on his social media, said Chris Frydrych, CEO of the firm.
That intervention was significant because two students in the district committed suicide the past two years, said Superintendent Richard Sheehan. The suicides occurred at a time when California has reduced mental health services in schools, Sheehan said.
"We were able to save a life," Sheehan said, adding the two recent suicides weren't outside the norm for school districts. "It's just another avenue to open up a dialogue with parents about safety."
In another recent incident, a student posted a photo of what appeared to be a gun, and a subsequent inquiry determined the gun was fake, Sheehan said.
Still, school administrators spoke with the parents of the student, who wasn't disciplined, the superintendent said.
"We had to educate the student on the dangers" of posting such photos, Sheehan said. "He was a good kid. ... It had a good ending."
In fact, no student has yet to be disciplined under the monitoring, but it's not out of the question if analysts find a message warranting action, such as a threat of a campus shooting, Sheehan said this week.
"I can see turning it over to police. That would be a situation in which discipline would follow," he said.
Frydrych's firm scours the social media postings of Glendale students aged 13 and older -- the age at which parental permission isn't required for the school's contracted monitoring -- and sends a daily report to principals on which students' comments could be causes for concern, Frydrych said.
The company won't disclose its methods and practices in gathering the students' messages, but it does use key words in its searches. The firm also didn't disclose how it confirms the youths are indeed students of the district.
To do the work, Frydrych employs no more than 10 full-time staffers -- as well as "a larger portion" of contract workers across the globe who labor a maximum of four hours a day because "the content they read is so dark and heavy," Frydrych said.
"It's mostly kids hanging onto a thread of life," Frydrych said, "and they're posting to people also hanging on to a thread."
He declined to disclose how many school campuses have retained his firm, founded this past January in Hermosa Beach, California. Frydrych has been providing technology services to school districts the past 10 years.
Geo Listening also monitors whether students are talking about drug use, cutting class or violence. The firm even ascertains whether pupils are using their smartphone during class time, Frydrych said.
While critics say the Glendale schools' contract is an invasion of privacy, Frydrych said his firm helps schools bridge a digital-age communications "chasm."
"Parents and school district personnel -- they are not able to effectively listen to the conversation where it's happening now," Frydrych said. "The notion about talking in class is about as old-fashioned as a Studebaker, no offense to the makers of the car.
"When was the last time you sent a kid to the principal's office for talking in class too much? I just don't think it happens too much. So what we kept seeing is the chasm keeps building between how students communicate and the ability to tell adults about what's going on in their lives," he said. "I thought we could bridge that gap."