New California Bill Limits Student Social Media Surveillance

A new bill signed by California Governor Jerry Brown makes it mandatory for schools that collect and monitor their students’ social media posts to discard the information. This has to be done within one year of the student turning 18 or leaving the school. In addition, schools are required to notify parents that they are analyzing their children’s social media posts.

Gil C /

Photo: Gil C / Shutterstock

The new law stems from Assemblyman Gatto’s bill AB 1442 introduced in January.

It was the outcome of Glendale Unified officials’ attempts to monitor the social media activities of their students with the help of Geo Listening. The school district had hired Geo Listening to analyze their students’ social posts on sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter without informing them or their parents that they were being tracked.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who introduced the legislation, said that he was happy that the governor realized the need for it. He added that this kind of monitoring would become more common in the coming years, and then such legislations would be crucial for protecting the interests and privacy of children.

Under a program launched in January 2013, school district Glendale Unified started monitoring the social media activities of students at three of its high schools with the help of Geo Listening.

In August 2013, the board expanded the scope of the program and started monitoring the posts of about 13,000 students across its four high schools and three middle schools. They didn’t hold any public discussion before launching this program. School officials said this monitoring would make it possible for them to intervene in case they discovered that students were using drugs, engaging in anti-social activities, or at the risk of hurting others or themselves.

Dick Sheehan, Supt. of Glendale Unified, said that they hired Geo Listening after the suicide of 15-year-old Drew Ferraro at Crescenta Valley High School in 2012. Later, his parents alleged that bullying forced him to take the drastic step and sued the school. The case is still in court.

After monitoring students’ activities, Geo Listening reported over 1,400 cases where Glendale students discussed negative topics like drug abuse, bullying, or suicide in the academic year 2013-14. In all, there were about 20 reports referring to suicide or despair. Another four mentioned self-cutting. Over 150 reports were related to bullying and almost 350 were tied to substance abuse. In addition, there were about 380 incidents where students posted vulgar or profane content online.

Kelly King, assistant superintendent of Glendale Unified, said that there had been several instances where the school shared data with parents and they were stunned because they didn’t know what their children were doing online.

In August, the school board voted in favor of paying $40,500 for hiring Geo Listening for the current academic year as well. Board member Christine Walters defended this move, saying that this was not an encroachment on privacy. She added that they were simply monitoring public posts and using them for the benefit of their students.

This year, the school district decided to inform parents that they were monitoring their kids’ public posts. This is one of the provisions of the new law.

Gatto expressed his hope that the new legislation would lead to meaningful conversations between children and their parents about what is appropriate to post on social media. He also said that it would encourage parents to ask the school districts whether engaging in this kind of monitoring is a good way to use resources.

Sheehan said that the new law would not have any real impact on their school district because they don’t keep information they collected through Geo Listening.

Jan Britz, Supt. of Burbank Unified, praised the new legislation which requires school districts to get rid of any information they collected within one year of the student leaving the district or turning 18.

He said that kids would make mistakes as they grow up and the school should help them learn from these mistakes. He praised Mike Gatto for presenting the bill after considering all aspects. The officials at Burbank Unified have intervened whenever they came across students’ comments that cause concern. However, they don’t engage in routine monitoring of posts.

The bill does not prevent schools from monitoring their students’ social posts. It merely asks them to inform parents that their children are being tracked. It is not uncommon for school districts to monitor their students’ online activities. However, this bill ensures that any data collected by the school will not come to haunt the students years later.