The Glendale school district has paid $40,500 to a start-up Internet company, Geo Listening, to monitor the public social media postings of some 14,000 students ages 13 and up. The company scans social media for keywords and pictures that might suggest violence or drug use, CNN said.
In a separate incident during a trial period last school year, Geo Listening Chief Executive Officer Chris Frydrych said his company identified a male student who posted on Facebook he was going to kill himself. The company alerted the school, which intervened before the student did any self-harm.
"We were able to save a life," Superintendent Richard Sheehan said. "It's just another avenue to open up a dialogue with parents about safety."
The district has seen two students take their own lives in the last two years, Sheehan said.
In another incident, Geo Listening identified a picture of a student with what appeared to be a gun. In an era of campus shootings, the matter was immediately referred to school officials who talked to the student. It was determined the gun was fake but Sheehan said the student got a real-world lesson in how social media usage can affect someone's image.
Other habits identified by the monitoring include cyberbullying, skipping school or class, drug use and possible physical violence.
Still, some privacy advocates say it's crossing a line when a government entity pays a private firm to stalk students' behavior online.
" This is the government essentially hiring a contractor to stalk the social media of the kids," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends privacy, free speech and consumer rights. "When the government -- and public schools are part of the government -- engages in any kind of line-crossing and to actually go and gather information about people away from school, that crosses a line."