Public Schools Coercing Kids to Share Facebook Details

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I am not sure what it is about Facebook that causes professionals to lose all their judgement and ability to reason and act as an adult particularly when it concerns personnel matters. One outcome of this is that employers are allowing themselves to get caught up in their employees' personal, non-work related use of this online communication platform. And this is happening even though normally what employees do when they are on their own time is not really a matter for concern for employers unless the employee gets involved in criminal activities. And in that case, it usually becomes public knowledge, and the employer need not worry about doing their own investigation. So, this shift to focus on one specific non-work activity does not really make sense or seem right. But what has been more disturbing is that education professionals in the public school system, specifically adminstrators, are practicing this same type of intrusion into the private lives of their students.

When this violation of privacy into a student's private Facebook account occurs, there are several critical differences from the violation of privacy of an adult employee:

  • The chances that a student under 18 fully understands their rights is minimal while an adult usually has a better chance of understanding their rights.
  • The administrator has a position of authority at a school so the student is more likely to be hesitant to disobey or not go along with requests to share their private, online account. An employee usually respects the employer's authority, but not usually to the point that abuse of their rights is tolerated.
  • The administration at a school can, if not monitored or managed well by a superintendent or board, can cause a student problems or harass them if the student does not go along with this violation of privacy. If this happens to an employee they can seek another job; the only way a student can realistically "quit" that school is to have their family relocate their home. This could be a major disruption to a family relying on jobs or having other kids in that school system. 
  • A student might be worried that if he does not go along with the administrator's request, his or her parents could be called increasing their chances in their mind for getting into trouble or being embarrassed by having their parents read their private messages. I don't think too many employees have to worry about their employer calling their mother to share secrets lurking in their Facebook messages.
  • For education to successfully occur, there needs to be some level of trust by the student in the adults at their school. And once this trust is broken by a violation of the student's privacy, the environment is no longer conducive for education or participation in other school-related activities to occur. A breakdown in trust between employer and employee might be tolerated for a while, and if it cannot be, the employee has the right and choice to quit.

Wake Up Call to Public Schools

Why is all this important or critical for a school to acknowledge and understand? Based on the social media education we have had at our city, it seems that this practice opens up an employer, or in this case the school, to legal liabilities. If they are regularly monitoring or requiring students to share private account information and messages, we learned they can risk liabilities based on what they read. And what is also critical is if this practice is preventing education from occuring, then schools risk not carrying out their primary mission.

Violation of a Student's Privacy is a Violation of a Family's Privacy

While abuse of privacy by employers and even colleges has become public knowledge and legislators are beginning to consider passing laws to prevent this, there seems to be little information about the abuse occurring at the public school level. Parents are probably not aware this is going on because few teens are going to run home and tell their mom or dad they were called into their counselor's or principal's office to allow full access to their Facebook account. It's embarrassing, and what teen wants to risk having to share their private messages with their mom or dad. But I can't imagine most parents would be happy to know their child is being forced to open up a window not only into their own private life, but potentially the lives of all of their friends and relatives. This intrusion ends up not only violating the privacy of the child, but also that of their whole family and the lives of their friends. Would most people be ok with their child's principal or counselor reading all about every matter that goes on in their family? 

The other issue in all this is if the school is doing something so risky as forcing kids to share private Facebook accounts and messages, they probably have not developed a policy for dealing with it all. So what is to stop the principal from printing out a child's message about the fight their parents had last night or how they found out they have a serious disease or illness or how they lost their job and are worried about making ends meet. And then what is to stop that principal from sharing that with anyone else? If there are no policies, how can this practice be regulated and how can parents be assured their own privacy has not been violated?

I only became aware of all this myself and the problems it introduces because one of my children was the victim of coercion and eventually violation into her private account by school officials. When it occurred, it created tremendous stress and problems for my family because of its effect on my daughter. Her trust in and the respect of the adults at her school has been shattered to the point that she is struggling to look beyond this abuse and allow for the education process to occur. And because I also can no longer trust them to perform their duties with good judgement, I have trouble knowing how to counsel her on how to handle situations at school.

Legislation Desperately Needed

When I read about the push to pass legislation to prevent employers and colleges from requiring access to social media accounts, I realized this needed to be extended to include public schools. And I realized many school officials might not realize these practices are going on. Fortunately I have been able to discuss this with Bradley Shear, an attorney championing this legislation throughout the country. And hopefully if others become aware that abuse in public schools is a real issue, he will be able to convince legislators to also regulate those institutions with these laws. So I decided to go ahead and write this blog to let others know this is going on and to indicate support in adding public schools to these laws. If you want to read the general details of our own, personal experience, I've shared them below.


Our Experience

Normally I don't like sharing the nitty gritty details of my family's life, particularly on my blog. But I'm doing so because it brings to light an issue government agencies need to be made aware of and only by sharing can we convince legislators there is a real problem. In our particular case, the abuses and actions by the administrators at my daughter's school have been appalling. It started because a teacher heard another student spreading rumors about my daughter – all of it unrelated to school and nothing against the law. So the school called in my daughter to demand to know if the rumors were true. This went on for some days, without my knowledge, and culminated in them asking her to open her Facebook account to them which she did. Then the vice principal called me to demand I come to the school immediately to read through her private messages. At the time I was out of town for work and could not make it back until later that night. She had obviously kept the account open long after my daughter had left and told me she would keep it open until I got there. She was almost hysterical about the whole situation also demanding I punish my daughter for what she had supposedly done. I tried to explain I could not come in and did not feel comfortable punishing my daughter for something I could never prove to have occurred. Finally at the end of our conversation, I told her to close the account, and I would contact her the next day.

But after I hung up, I began to realize what a violation of my daughter's privacy this whole episode was. It did not appear that my daughter had done anything wrong at school yet they had subjected her to an investigation as if she was a criminal and then read through all her messages which would have been equivalent to my teachers going through my diary when I was in grade school. Of course I found out when I got home that this had taken a huge toll on my daughter who ended up crying through most of the rest of the day and therefore missed most of her classes. She was embarrassed and very upset. Particularly so because their line of questioning had also been sexual in nature with them demanding she share with them everything she had done sexually. In this day and age, I just cannot imagine how a school administrator could confront a 13-year old girl and demand to know the extent of her sexual experience.

So the next day, I spoke with the principal thinking he would set things straight. But instead I learned about even more disturbing practices. He explained that the reason they had to interrogate my daughter was because the punishment for spreading rumors is different depending on if the rumor is true or not. So he insisted of his need to conduct an investigation into the truth each time they hear a rumor about a child. And obviously he did not see a problem with not contacting a parent first. I tried to point out that by not contacting a parent first, particularly with questioning related to the sexuality of a student, they risk many issues. I asked him if he ever considered they might be interrogating a child who had been a victim of sexual abuse and without first consulting a parent they would risk further causing pain for that child? Fortunately in our case, my daughter does not have that background, but how would they have known if they had not first called a parent? He said he cannot call parents until he has the truth. I told him not to pry into the private lives of my children. And he said he cannot do that – it is his obligation to look out for the morals and ethics of the children at his school. And if he feels they are not leading a moral life (obviously according to his standards), he is going to launch an investigation. And only if he finds they are in fact exhibiting poor behavior will he contact parents. And even then he said he doesn't like contacting parents because most kids don't want their parents to know anything and would rather just talk to him. Of course, I ended the conversation by making it clear he did not have my permission to interrogate or invade the privacy of any of my children without first discussing it with me unless they were violating some school rule. I also indicated I felt he was depriving me of my right to parent my own child and that his staff desperately needed some education in how to handle these matters. His response was, "Fine, for the Broviak children, I will call you first."

I struggled with legally pursuing this matter because it was so stressful and disruptive to my family. It definitely affected my daughter's grades and her relationship with the school. But because we have other children who will or are attending that school and did not want to risk having their education jeopardized, we chose not to pursue litigation even though I was advised we would have a case. Also, I thought it was more important that the school realize they need to change their practices and stop any other child from going through this. 

When I learned a few months after this that the counselor had told another mother not to allow her daughter, who was one of my daughter's best friends, to spend time with mine, I finally called a meeting with the principal and school superintendent. Again I tried to emphasize how wrong these practices were, that they were violating our rights by doing these things, and that they desperately needed to educate their staff. But both men disagreed with my assessment and even went so far as to deny a lot of this happened. Even though I talked to the other mother myself, they said that never occurred. So the only outcome was to change the counselor that my daughter would report to.

For now, they have not again approached my daughter for her private information. We are trying to get through the last part of 7th and hope to make it through 8th with no more problems. But my daughter says they are still regularly taking kids into the counselor's office and telling them they cannot leave until they open up their Facebook accounts to their scrutiny. I asked her what the kids do and she said, "they let them see the accounts because otherwise, they are not allowed to leave the room." And that is just wrong, and something tells me the school's attorney would not be too happy to find out this was happening on a regular basis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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73 thoughts on “Public Schools Coercing Kids to Share Facebook Details

  1. David, thanks so much for your support. It’s unfortunate we have to pass legislation to force people to do something that just makes sense.

  2. Janet, It is unfortunate that the people who are saying they are trying to prevent bullying seem to end up the bullies themselves. We were already a close family, but each struggle and challenge in our lives, although awful to experience, has helped to bring us even closer. The hardest part now has been getting my daughter to ignore them enough to let the education process happen. Thanks for your support and thoughts.

  3. Melody, that is exactly what I tried to explain to the principal, and he just refused to acknowledge or agree with it. I guess I was fortunate that he at least gave in and agreed to call me first whenever something happens with my children.

  4. Rebecca, we also could not believe a school admin would go out of their way to tell another parent who their kid should hang around with. Kids this age are at a very fragile time of their lives and as you point out probably do not yet understand their rights. And I can’t imagine how it is for those kids to be forced to sit in a room until they give in, particularly if they would not feel comfortable going home and sharing what happened to them. I also hated and felt very uncomfortable having to tell my kids certain adults with authority at their school cannot be trusted and are not acting responsibly. Thanks for your support.

  5. Kelly – thanks for your comment and support – it is intimidating which I can’t help but wonder if they count on to be allowed to continue with their actions. We have tried to use this as a learning opportunity with our kids, and I am hoping if the legislation passes, they will learn that if talking and discussion doesn’t first work, then there are other routes to take. My main concern at this point with litigation is that it might only help in our district where the legislation will help all of us. Thanks again!

  6. Thom – thanks for sharing your thoughts. Their method of dealing with rumors does seem very strange. It ends up traumatizing the victim who is already upset because of the rumor.

  7. Anne, I agree that online posts are not private in any way. I also think you are right about teaching kids to post responsibly and be aware of consequences if they do not. We have tried to teach our kids this lesson. But in this particular case, the incident had nothing to do with cyber bullying although I now realize the superintendent’s response to this in the article could have been stated in that manner on purpose to suggest that it was to help alleviate any criticism of their actions. But my daughter did not put anything online that was hurtful or offensive to another person – if she had she would have been in huge trouble by us. Instead what the school was searching through was not the public online part of the site. The school did not look at her public posts – they asked to see her private messages that are actually more like email on FB. No one can see these messages but my daughter, so the people who sent her these messages had expected some level of privacy that has now been shattered. I think many of us would probably be embarrassed if anyone could read private letters or messages we send to another person, and many would not feel comfortable having anonymous people we don’t know reading about intimate details of our lives that have not been posted publicly but instead shared only between two people. I’m also concerned there is no guidance on what school admins can do with these private messages. What if they print them out and share them with anyone they want? Thanks for posting.

  8. John, it is disturbing that school admins are handling issues like this in this manner. I only wish I had considered that they might do something like this because I would have warned her to call me immediately if she is forced to share private information with them. And the horrible thing for her other than having to go through it all is that it is now preventing them from successfully educating her which is really what their mission and objective is. Fortunately just about every single teacher of hers has been extremely supportive and gone out of their way to help her. And the counselor she is now allowed to see has also gone out of her way to help. In a way, the principal and vice principal handling of this just made my daughter’s teachers’ jobs a lot harder. Thanks for your comment!

  9. Veterkins, it is amazing that the admins like to throw around the cyber bullying term to justify their actions, but in the end, have no problem using intimidation and bullying to get what they want. I did eventually try going to the school board, but the guy I talked to referred me to the superintendent which I think was the right thing to do. After all they are probably paying this guy at least $200K to $300K to handle these types of things. The unfortunate thing was while he did meet with me and the principal, all he did was take notes and not really take a leadership position to solve the issue or assure me he would address my concerns other than to change the counselor my daughter would report to. So going back to the board seemed a fruitless endeavor. In the end, the other choice – helping to get legislation passed and educate others on the issue – seemed to have the best chance to solve the problem and make sure no other parent in the US would have to worry about this. Your support means a lot, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  10. justme, I did the best I could to talk to other kids and parents who have all verified what my daughter had said. And when I first called the principal, my first question to him was did my daughter do anything wrong. He said no – she had done nothing wrong at all.

    I am also not the fixer type either – too many kids to take this parenting approach. And I definitely agree it is disturbing that in the end I had to tell my kids not to trust or respect the authority of these adults because this is exactly the opposite of what I have been telling them their entire lives. But unfortunately the admins gave me no choice but to change my instructions to my kids which I tried to explain to the school admins was not a good thing. But I don’t want them to have the opportunity to use their authority in the future to intimidate my kids, cause stress to my family, and abuse the rights of my kids again. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  11. Thanks James for commenting – you are fortunate your school is handling these issues in a responsible manner. So far our elementary and high school also seem to be doing a good job. In my experience it has only been this one middle school.

  12. Pam, I hope you and your daughter continue to see the positive outcomes from having the courage to share your story.  While the incident was painful for both you and her, your experience will have a great impact on many, many students around the country.  Thanks so much for being brave enough to share, and standing up for your/her rights!  I can't believe I came across an article about you on the web!  http://mobile.salon.com/2012/05/18/when_the_school_is_the_bully/singleton/
    Lisa

  13. Lisa, your comments and support mean so much to me – I realize you have a unique perspective on all this. The decision to go public was risky and difficult for our family because as you can imagine even though we did nothing wrong at all, it opens us up to scrutiny and potential criticism and possibly even attacks by the school (although they would probably be behind the scenes). But as some people pointed out, my daughter experienced this as a bullying incident and had all the feelings associated with going through that – unfortunately in this case it is the school admins who were the bullies. I had written this post in an effort to at least try to convince government/school admins that there is a need to consider the legality and consequences of doing something like this. But after speaking with Bradley Shear, we ended up agreeing with him that we needed to share the story through a national outlet to help make a difference for the most people. This affected my daughter so severely we thought no other child or family should have to go through this.

  14. Pam, I think we ALL can learn a lesson from this.  Everyone should DELETE their private messages/chat after reading.  We are all subject to hacking" on facebook, deliberate or not.  What you post on your wall is not private, what you post in messaging /chat is.  If you want to keep it that way-DELETE it.  How many times have we forgotten to log off Facebook and had someone using our computer gain access to our information?

  15. Facebook is NOT private nor was it ever meant to be. It is a social media site- social meaning to be shared. Kids, and many immature adults, forget this and publish was too much information or insult/ bully others. Anyone your daughter is friend’s with and possibly even friends of friends can see her “private” page. Never mind that there is a minimum age for Facebook which many kids lie about in order to obtain, but why not set boundaries for her about when it’s appropriate to access. I taught middle school for years and, believe it or not, teachers and administrators could not care less about your child’s social life until it affects others. I’ve seen multiple scenarios where a child reports that another child threatened or bullied them via the Internet. Then, administrators have asked to see their FB. We’ve also, with a police officer present, asked to see phones when someone told us a student possessed nude pictures of another student. Principals and teachers deal with a lot of nonsense and the majority are trying to protect students so it’s frustrating when parents make them out to be bad. If your daughter went to the office and complained that another student called her a whore of FB, you’d likely be up in arms if the school failed to investigate. It’s a double-edged sword that makes a lot of teachers want to look away in cases like this. I am also a parent of a middle schooler and have warned him that someone might ask to see his phone if he gets caught using it in class- which is a violation of his school policy. You cannot imagine how many kids cheat via texting in class. Anyway, you can also teach your daughter to respectfully decline re person who asks for her phone and to request a parent be called. If this is happening as much as you say, you should have already discussed the possibility and prepares her in how you’d like her to respond. Clearly, she’s not too intimidated by authority or she would not have been Facebooking at school.

  16. Oh, and yes, I read the private messages part; however, cyber bullying laws do not exclude emails or texts. Have you addressed why they asked to see her phone? And, in case some don’t know, schools are held liable if they do not take cases of cyber bullying seriously. Again, double-edged sword.

  17. Brook, I did talk to the principal and then later met with him and the supt. He said they only looked at it to determine if the rumor the person was spreading was true. It all had nothing to do with cyberbullying; they said my daughter had done nothing wrong; and my daughter did none of the posting while at school. I agree with you that anything posted, even if the page is made private, could be potentially seen by anyone, and if she had done it at school, this would not have even been an issue because I believe that would have been wrong. But in this case, the post was not done on school time and it was not on her private page, but in her messages which are like email – only she can see them. I also agree with you on the phone situation – I think as you said, they just need to call a parent for something that is not a school infraction or emergency. And I don’t think they should have it in class if it is a method for cheating. I think your advice is good about teaching kids how to properly and respectfully respond if a situation like this comes up. Thanks so much for posting!

  18. Have you taken a look at the bill Missouri passed this past year regarding Facebook?  I was very impressed with parts of the bill.  It did a great job at making educators distance themselves from students and social media.  There were a couple of questionable areas – what if teachers and parents were friends – but it did a great job of attempting to address some of these issues. 

  19. Veterkins – Thanks for sharing information about that bill – I just Googled it and came up with this article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/03/missouri-facebook-law_n_916716.html. With all this fast changing technology it seems so very important for everyone to work together as a team to understand it and establish guidance. It’s great Missouri is addressing it and providing leadership. Hopefully they will continue to keep an open dialogue on the issue as it changes and evolves and everyone gains a better understanding of its use.

  20. Pingback: When School’s and Facebook Privacy Collide

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