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Geo Listening: The School’s Ear in Your Phone

Alec Mills, Correspondent

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“Disrupt bullying before it’s too late”, “make yesterday the last day that you were not able to effectively identify and engage with these students to meet their needs”, trumpets the website. Pictures of dejected children slumped against lockers are replaced by contented, engaged educational participants interacting interpersonally in an optimal manner. What wizardry is it that can “transform student interactions” so wonderfully?

The sorcerer appears to be “Geo Listener” (website here), and it’s a new service selling itself to schools around the country. In short, it listens in on students’ social media conversations – Facebook posts, Twitter posts, even Google Plus accounts (if it can find any) – and then reports back to the school. Any student above the age of 13 is fair game. Anything deemed objectionable – from possible harassment to posts made during class time – is read by the company (made up of contractors all around the world) and then by school officials.

The school can then take action against offenders or act to help out students who may be in danger of self-harm. And it has, in at least one case, possibly prevented a suicide. Now that’s a wonderful thing – but isn’t the net being cast a bit wide? According to CNN, the company is alerted whenever a post is made during a class period. While doing a bit sure that students are abiding by reasonable rules of behavior during school and not contemplating suicide is indeed a worthy goal, this is way beyond that – a school can now essentially stalk its students online.

Supreme Court cases have repeatedly established that schools have the right to ensure a conducive learning environment even if that means punishing kids for out-of-school conduct, so there is a precedent for schools being a force in student’s personal lives. And, since the firm only snoops on public pages, there is no legal argument against it.

But we should be wary of the more subtle implications. While it is perfectly appropriate for a school to provide counselling and support to students who are in a bad place, reaching into student’s home lives and censuring them based on what is found is excessive. The suspicion of guilt for something, even if the school does not yet know what, is placed automatically on the student. Free expression could suffer considerably: a Geo Listening spokesperson stated that comments critical of school faculty could be reported if they were considered “inappropriate”. Will profanity be reported? Crude humor? “Hate speech”, a ridiculously loose term that has, in the past, been allowed to encompass expression of unpopular views like atheism? Will high-school interactions be bowdlerized by a school that hovers at your shoulder, so that it enforce the rules more effectively? The fact is that crude humor, profanity, etc. are essential parts of being a teenager, or being any human being, for that matter. The boundaries of the appropriate are likely to be ill-defined and subject to change at the whim of the faculty, leaving the door open to selective enforcement and a chilling effect on “offensive” speech in general .

In addition, such meticulous punishment inflicted for any offense leaves no room for personal growth or self-reflection. There will never be time to correct one’s own behavior before one is caught and punished.  The knee-jerk removal of bad behavior deprives students of an important component of growing up: realizing that things are still wrong if you don’t get caught.Responsibility for helping others is taken out of the hands of students and given to the school. Students will have less social responsibility – what does it matter if my friend is unhappy if the school will take care of it? The drive to edit lives as effectively as possible is well-intentioned but deeply harmful.

And, one final thought, if Big Brother is coming to watch over us, do we really want him to use sentences like, “Geo Listening provides important information allowing for rapid and proactive interventions that are associated with better outcomes”?

Luckily, Geo Listener won’t be coming to Nashoba any time soon. Dr. Parry Graham, when interviewed on Wednesday, said that “I’m not your parents”, and that, while he has a duty to ensure a safe learning environment, he “doesn’t want to know” about students’ personal lives as long as they aren’t seriously disrupting education. Keep it up, Doctor. It seems that this is mostly an issue for students at other schools, so set your accounts to “private” and you’ll be safe for now, vicious hooligans.

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Geo Listening: The School’s Ear in Your Phone