Debate Over Student Social Media Monitoring Takes Center Stage

Though searching for terms used on public social media accounts is not against the law, a Pearson spokeswoman says the company is “obligated” to alert authorities when problems are discovered.

by Justine Brown / April 9, 2015

News broke last month that Pearson, the world’s largest education company, is monitoring social media activity during administration of the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) Common Core test to detect security breaches -- and it's brought to light the security of online testing and the role of social media in that security. 

While this is not the only instance in which social media has been monitored by testing companies or state authorities during student standardized testing, many parents and educators view it as a violation of a students’ privacy. Pearson said it passes on what they find to state departments of education, which then refer it to districts for disciplinary action. 

“Monitoring the Internet for security breaches is one thing; however, it’s very troubling that Pearson is combining PARCC data with students’ alleged personal social media content, and then instructing schools to discipline students because they don't like a particular tweet,” said Bradley Shear, a Maryland-based lawyer who counsels educational institutions about technology law and policies. “How does Pearson or a school know a social media account belongs to a student absent verification? Students have a First Amendment right to discuss the PARCC exam and Pearson has no legal right to combine student social media content with PARCC data.”

Though searching for terms used on public accounts is not against the law, a spokeswoman for Pearson said that it was “obligated” to alert authorities when any problems were discovered.

News of the social media monitoring was revealed in a message that Elizabeth C. Jewett, superintendent of New Jersey's Watchung Hills Regional High School District, sent to colleagues about an episode that she was made aware of by her district’s testing coordinator. That message was then posted without Jewett’s permission on the website of Bob Braun, a former reporter, who called the monitoring of social media “spying.”

In response, Pearson spokeswoman Stacy Skelly said in an email that the security of a test "is critical to ensure fairness for all students and teachers and to ensure that the results of any assessment are trustworthy and valid.” 

But not everyone agrees.

“Just because schools have access to certain technology doesn't mean they should deploy that technology, especially when it threatens student privacy,” said Khaliah Barnes, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) student privacy project. “Social media monitoring is one such example. Schools and their contractors should not monitor students' social media profiles. Social media monitoring infringes on student privacy and can chill free speech. In recognizing this, some states have taken a proactive, pro-privacy stance by passing laws to protect student social media privacy. Schools should use less invasive measures to achieve their educational purposes.”

Shear said social media policies and privacy rights are increasingly coming under scrutiny as schools and administrators try to figure out the best way to manage them. There is no one-size-fits-all social media policy for students, teachers and school administrators, he said. State law and community standards differ around the country, so what may be acceptable in one jurisdiction may not work in another.  

Shear suggests that if a district decides to draft a social media policy, leaders should discuss the plan with the proper stakeholders to avoid a major backlash when the new policies are implemented. 

For example, the social media policy for baseball players at Lamar High School in Texas requires student-athletes to follow @lamarbaseball on Twitter and Instagram, and allow Lamar Baseball to follow students back. It requires student-athletes to “Like” Lamar Baseball on Facebook and remove a post from a personal account if requested. 

“These requirements clearly violate the First and Fourth Amendment rights of students and may create tremendous legal liability for the school district,” explained Shear. “School districts must remember not to implement an overly restrictive policy that creates unintended legal liabilities.”

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