Calif. school district monitoring students' social media activity

CA school tracks students' social media: Is i... 02:07

(CBS News) Social media texting, tweeting, and posting are all part of being a teen these days, but now some teens' online actions are being monitored on a daily basis.

The social media sites of all 13,000 students in Glendale, Calif.'s middle and high schools are being monitored.

School officials hired a company called Geo Listening to daily track the students' online posts with the goal to intervene when students discuss suicide, bullying, violence, or substance abuse. Richard Sheehan, superintendent of Glendale Unified School District, said, "The whole purpose of this is student safety ... Basically it just monitors for key words, where, if a student is considering harming themselves, harming someone else."

Geo Listening collects information from sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram -- publicly accessible social networks -- and sends the information culled from the searches in a daily report to school officials. In a statement, Chris Frydrych, chief executive officer of Geo Listening told CBS News "[we] don't monitor private emails, text messages, phone calls or voicemails."

The service costs $40,500 per year.

CBS News spoke to one parent, Michelle Wright, who said she hopes it makes teens think twice about what they post. "There's a lot of cyberbullying that I've seen," Wright said. "So I think if the school gets involved that's it wonderful, it's a win-win."

But the American Civil Liberties Union is more concerned with how it impacts privacy and civil rights issues. Brendan Hamme, staff attorney of the ACLU of Southern California, said, "We're looking for what privacy safeguards are put into place, how the information is being utilized, how it's being stored and kept, if there are restrictions on how it's shared with other entities."

Yet many teens being monitored say they just don't want grown-ups listening in. Ashley Sandoval, 15, said, "We rebel. If your parents come and tell you, 'Oh you can't do this,' you're going to go and do it just to show them that you can. So I don't think monitoring us is going to do us any good."

Geo Listening claims it isn't prying into the lives of teenagers -- just giving the old-school notion of "hall monitor" a high-tech twist.

Watch John Blackstone's full report above.

For more on the finer points of law, "CBS This Morning" turned to CBS News legal analyst Jack Ford who explained the practice does feel invasive or awkward, but it is legal because the information is publicly available online.

"It's not as if somebody's breaking into password-protected accounts and doing things you usually can get as a consequence of getting a search warrant," he said. "They've said, 'We're just going to monitor the things that are out there anyway.' ... So you can understand why some people might not be happy with it. Others might be delighted with it, but not illegal."

But what kind of privacy are students entitled to?

Students, Ford said, have a "reasonable expectation of privacy," but in this kind of situation, people can take a look at it -- and that's the claim the schools can make.

For more on this issue, watch Ford's full interview below.

Ford said, "The argument is clearly by the schools, 'You're sending these out. These posts are going out on Facebook and on Twitter, so clearly you don't have an expectation of privacy. Indeed, it's exactly the opposite. You're putting it out there for the public.' That seems to be the standard there. If it's inside your pocketbook or your wallet, that's a different issue, but if you're posting it for other people to see, then so far the law has said, 'We can take a look at it, especially if you're concerned for security issues'."

The schools can monitor and pick up threats and report them, but where it gets tricky is when other issues come up, such as statements about instructors. Ford said, "Suppose what you're sending out there is a post that says that 'My history teacher is an idiot.' That's going to depend on a lot of factors -- public school, private school -- whether or not your school has a conduct code, and many of them do now where they say respect is going to be a factor here. There are all sorts of issues that can come into play as a consequence of this."