Social media monitoring raises thorny legal questions

While there's probably no criminal liability, comprehensive monitoring could put schools in difficult positions
By: | Issue: May, 2015
April 17, 2015

Laws in different states provide varied leeway when it comes to monitoring students’ public and private social media activity.

Under an Illinois law that was passed last year, district administrators (after parental notification) can demand a student’s social media passwords if they have “reasonable cause” to believe they will find evidence the student has violated school rules.

And a 2014 California law requires districts to notify parents of any plans to monitor social media and allows students to review whatever information is collected. The information must also be destroyed a year after the student turns 18 or leaves the district.

Many districts take part in rudimentary monitoring, including installing filters on school Wi-Fi and tracking students’ activity on school-owned devices, says Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. But it’s rare for districts to use a service to monitor external traffic around-the-clock, he adds.

While there’s probably no criminal liability, comprehensive monitoring could put schools in difficult positions of deciding what kind of posts to act upon, Patchin says.

For instance, underage students might be talking about buying beer for a party. It might not seem like a serious threat, but what if a student who drinks the beer is injured or killed in a car accident after the party?

“If you think it is appropriate to troll social media to look for problems, even if you find something relatively minor, then [administrators are] going to have to do something, even if it’s calling parents at 11 o’clock at night,” he says. “There’s a wide variation of perceived responsibility for these kind of things.”


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