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#Civil Rights: NC School System to Watch Students Online

PHOTO: Smoky Mountain High School in Jackson County will be the pilot site for Jackson County Schools' program to monitor the online activity of its students. Photo courtesy Jackson County Schools
PHOTO: Smoky Mountain High School in Jackson County will be the pilot site for Jackson County Schools' program to monitor the online activity of its students. Photo courtesy Jackson County Schools
July 30, 2014

SYLVA, N.C. - Who should be monitoring students' online activity? Traditionally, the answer is parents, but one North Carolina school system is employing a private company to monitor posts and "tweets" in what it describes as an effort to protect students' safety. Meanwhile, the ACLU of North Carolina is concerned the program could violate student's First Amendment rights.

Jackson County Schools have hired Vermont-based Social Sentinel to monitor their students' online conduct. Assistant Superintendent Kim Elliott said they are specifically looking for keywords that would indicate students intend to harm themselves or another student.

"It is our goal to share the mutual responsibility and address the impact of social media in our schools," she said, "so that we can maintain a safe environment for our students and our staff."

The Jackson County school district will run the pilot program this year at Smoky Mountain High School. Both the school system and ACLU suggest parents also monitor their students' online activity.

However, the ACLU is concerned about the policy, particularly because of a cyber-bullying law passed in the state two years ago that allows criminal charges to be filed in some cases. Some parents also have publicly voiced concern over the new program.

Mike Meno, communications director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said there's a fine line for determining what might be considered "threatening" communication online.

"If you think about this in a real-world scenario," he said, "does that mean that a student who maybe is venting and says that they're tired of a particular teacher - would that be something that would result in charges? We hope not."

Since 16- and 17-year-olds can be tried as adults in North Carolina, Meno said, the monitoring is of special concern.

"Teenagers often post things online that they don't really mean," he said, "and I think it would be very regretful if a 16- or 17-year-old ended up facing criminal charges and perhaps a lifetime of consequences."

According to the school district, Social Sentinel will only be examining statements made publicly available through students' online privacy settings.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC