The Parkland, Florida, school shooting has reignited the national conversation on what can be done to prevent such tragedies, which seem to occur with frightening regularity.
One option, which already is used by many schools and probably will be adopted by more, is to employ companies that monitor students’ social media feeds to flag threats of violence, as well as behavior such as bullying and self-harm.
Miami-Dade County’s school system has asked for $30 million in upgrades that include “advanced monitoring of social media,” while schools in California, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia have indicated that social media monitoring, including by third-party companies, is a key security feature.
But schools should think long and hard before they go down this path.
A WASTED EFFORT?
There is little evidence that such monitoring works, and these practices raise plenty of questions about privacy and discrimination.
Nikolas Cruz, the suspected perpetrator of the Parkland shooting, hardly presents a case for schools to proactively check social media.
If anything, it shows that people already alert law enforcement when they see genuinely threatening material online.
Cruz was reported to the FBI and local police at least three times for disturbing posts; one call to the FBI warned that he might become a school shooter, while a separate call flagged a YouTube post saying that the user wanted to become a “professional school shooter” (although the poster wasn’t identified as Cruz until after the shooting).
And Cruz’s explicit declaration of intent is the exception, not the rule, which means monitoring the Internet wouldn’t usually turn up such warnings.
Our informal survey of major school shootings since the 2012 Sandy Hook killings in Newtown, Connecticut, shows that only one other perpetrator’s social media accounts indicated an interest in school violence: Adam Lanza.
Lanza, the Newtown shooter, posted in discussion forums about the Columbine high school shooting and operated Tumblr accounts named after school shooters.
These postings were not a secret, and while viewers at the time may not have known whether to take the threats seriously, it is hard to imagine in the current climate that his posts would not be reported to the authorities — as they should be.
Generally, school shooters’ online profiles — which wind up being extensively analyzed in the wake of attacks — reveal little that sets them apart from other teenagers.
An algorithm trawling the Web for people who like violent video games or firearms would be swamped with far more hits than any law enforcement agency or school administrator could conceivably review.
The same would be true of any program that looked for words like “gun,” “bomb” or “shoot,” as the Jacksonville, Florida, police department discovered the hard way when its social media monitoring tool — while producing zero evidence of criminal activity — flagged comments about crab burgers, pizza or beer being described as “bomb,” or excellent. (It also caught two uses of the phrase “photo bomb.”)
Social media monitoring tools can also result in discrimination against minority students.
A recent ACLU report showed that the Boston Police Department’s social media monitoring efforts contributed nothing to public safety while searching for terms like “Ferguson” and “#blacklivesmatter,” as well as terms likely to be used by Muslim users, like “#muslimlivesmatter” and “ummah,” the Arabic word for community.
There is also substantial evidence to suggest that children of color, especially those who are Muslim, would be treated as dangerous and perhaps subject to extra monitoring, despite the fact that the majority of school shooters have been white.
Children of color appear likely to be treated more harshly in general, even when their white peers break the same rules.
KIDS MAY GET SNEAKIER
As many Americans cheer the Parkland shooting survivors for their political activism, it is important to recognize the chilling effect of ongoing surveillance.
Given that 92 percent of American teens go online daily and 24 percent are online almost constantly, monitoring programs can operate like listening devices that record every utterance and pass it on to school administrators.
Yes, this scrutiny may on occasion reveal risky behavior that requires intervention.
But far more often, it will also squelch young people’s ability to express themselves — and probably drive conversations to communications channels that cannot be easily monitored.
This is not to say that schools should never look at students’ Facebook posts.
But they should generally do so only when there is a reason — for example, when a student or parent has flagged concerning behavior or when the school is investigating online harassment or bullying.
Every school must have in place policies available to parents, teachers and students specifying when it will look at social media postings.
Such policies should be narrowly tailored to avoid impinging on the privacy and free speech rights of students, and they should limit the sharing of data with third parties and include procedures for deleting information when a child graduates or leaves the school, as well as safeguards to ensure that children of color are not unfairly targeted.
In the wake of yet another school shooting, Americans are understandably looking for ways to keep students safe.
We should focus our attention on measures that have been proved to work, such as sensible gun controls and ensuring that parents and peers know whom to contact to report threats and to receive help, rather than expensive tools that are unlikely to make us secure but carry substantial costs for the very children we are trying to protect.
Faiza Patel is co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Rachel Levinson-Waldman is senior counsel in the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.