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Jeff Ward: There is Nothing Private About Facebook

Principal Terry Bleau and GMSS administrators did exactly the right thing when they asked a student to show them her Facebook page.

Imagine your son or daughter posted an online suicide note and not one of her 1,082 Facebook “friends” lifted a finger to stop it. In fact, some of them encourage her to go ahead and end her life.

Don’t say it could never happen, because it did.

What if your middle school daughter sent a nude picture of herself to friends and very specifically described her current and potential sexual experiences on Facebook? What would you do when the news spreads through the school like wildfire?

How would you react if your middle school son brought marijuana-laced brownies to school and, having gotten away with it, bragged about the “prank” on Facebook? Don’t laugh. It happened in Virginia!

What would you do if your son, in response to incessant middle school bullying, posted heart rending cries for help on Facebook and, after they're ignored, he takes his own life. I could fill this page with links to real-world examples.

What if your son or daughter is the one doing the online bullying?

Now put yourself in the school administrator’s shoes. And a number of students come to you with any one of these revelations or worse, that another student posted they were bringing a weapon to school. What would you do?

I wouldn’t have to waste a fleeting nanosecond thinking about it. I’d do exactly what Geneva Middle School South Principal Terry Bleau did. I’d call the student(s) into my office, ask them to show me their Facebook page, and then take the appropriate action, the least of which would be to call their parents.

As long as I’m still breathing and I have a shot at preventing a needless death, a dangerous situation, or an illegal act, it won’t be happening on my watch.

Ah! But given both our current parental entitlement mentality epidemic and the damned-if-you-do-or-don’t nature of dealing with social media, resorting to these proactive measures didn’t work out too well for Principal Bleau.

Not only is he getting raked over the coals by a parent, but some of you all are getting your best barbs in, too. And I thought a youth soccer coach’s life was fraught with peril.

On her engineering blog, Geneva Public Works Assistant Director for “interrogating” her 13-year-old daughter regarding alleged sexual activity and for demanding to see her Facebook page.

The story gained national attention when an MSNBC blogger picked it up.

“Whoa, Jeff! We’ve got you now! Aren’t you the one who always comes out so vehemently against random school drug searches? And now you’re supporting this privacy breach? Let's see you worm your way out of this one!

I’ll be happy to do just that.

First, my problem has always been with the word “random” and not the word "search." If school administrators have reasonable and probable cause to search a locker for a weapon, drugs or other illegal item, then it is their implicit duty to do just that.

Second, what most middle schoolers, high schoolers, and apparently some parents fail to understand is, there is no expectation of privacy on a social media website. Broviak’s contention that GMSS violated her daughter’s privacy is patently absurd when you consider that putting yourself out on Facebook is the very antithesis of privacy.

And it’s abundantly clear from the comments here that quite a few of you know exactly what was said online because your children told you.

Third, though the written policy regarding social media seems a bit too vague for my taste, Principal Bleau made this GMSS position abundantly clear during a beginning-of-the-school-year assembly.

He warned all students that if something posted on a social media website was dangerous, illegal, spread rumors, or disrupted the school environment, administrators would call the author down to the office and ask to see it firsthand. My son remembers that speech well.

If you don’t like the policy, then you have options. Private school is one—though I think you’ll find them to be even stricter. I’m not fond of No Refusal weekends, but as long as I choose to live in Kane County I have to accept the possibility of being pulled over for a random sobriety test.

In the end, Ms. Brovkiak’s course of action utterly baffles me.

Were I in her shoes, I’d be embarrassed that the school knew about this before I did! If and when my sons ever embrace Facebook, you can be sure I’m going to be one of their “friends.” As for secret Facebook pages or texts, there are all sorts of software out there that can easily ferret out that kind of thing.

Though she certainly has a right to disagree with the GMSS policy, considering that even Broviak admitted the cause for concern was sexual in nature, the last thing I would’ve done is to make it even more public by putting it out there on a blog.

Suddenly she doesn’t seem quite so concerned about her middle school daughter’s privacy. 

Terry Bleau and GMSS did the right thing. They were on top of a situation that was potentially illegal, dangerous, and certainly disrupted the school. And the parents should’ve been grateful that they didn’t ignore it.

Over the past four years I’ve dealt with Terry Bleau on a wide variety of issues, and though we don’t always agree, there’s a reason he was just named .

It’s too bad he didn’t get a few seconds to enjoy it.

Jeff Ward May 21, 2012 at 02:16 PM
Well put.
Rod Nelson May 21, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Jeff and Bob have this right. I share Julie's view of Facebook. As with so many technology tools, Facebook is a two edged sword that requires parental involvement.
John Perdikus May 21, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Perfectly put. I would hate to be a school administrator now. How many parents support them anymore? Their kid is always right. It’s a shame that they are in the business of doing any of this. Shouldn’t the parents be there to say, “No, you are not wearing that skirt to school”? Or,” it’s 20 degrees outside; you can’t wear just a T- shirt today”. It starts with those little things.
Laurie May 21, 2012 at 03:14 PM
Parents need to not only be her child's "friend" on facebook, but also have their logon ID and Password, so they can read their child's not so private messages. A proactive parent would have known about this before the administrators...and if they are too trusting to do this, then Lord help their kids when they are 15 or 16....what will their child be doing or saying then for encores? It's time for parents to actually parent! Those that chose not to parent should be grateful they have such a caring school administrator helping them do the right thing! There is no privacy in social media...job applicants are being asked for their passwords when applying for jobs...college student athletes are asked to friend their school's compliance department. Get over it and start teaching your children not to post anything on facebook they wouldn't want their own grandmother to see or read! (This includes private inbox messages!) Then do your job as a parent and check up on them! Also buy your child a journal, so they can write their inner most thoughts and have a place to vent that's truly private...and then check that too! Your child will thank you later, perhaps when they are in college, for being a strict, but loving parent. Recently been there...
J May 21, 2012 at 03:27 PM
My child is friends with the girl in the middle of this. It is a shame shes being tossed all over now by people adults and kids because her mom put her out there for the nation. The girl is so nice and very polite and we love having her over at our house, I would have expected a bit of a different "outcry" from her parents. If it was my kid and she was in the predicament at hand I sure as heck would have dealt with her on my own, (I agree with the administration whole heartily on this issue by the way) and I wouldnt have made an already hard time in a younger kids life even worse. I hope for her sake this just goes away quickly and they get her someone to talk about all of this with before it scars her for life.
Stacy May 21, 2012 at 03:33 PM
While I tend to agree with you on a lot of issues, you've missed the point here. The principal, if feeling the need to look at her Facebook page should NOT be doing do without her parents present. While everyone has their opinions of Social Media, once the administration is in, it opens up not just the student's profile, but also anyone else who is friends with that student. The administration in this case did not "log off" once they looked at her page, but kept it open potentially violating the privacy of others without notice. The administration is stepping over boundaries by bypassing parents and coercing students by making them sit in the office missing classes or threatening them with action. If my child is the subject of an investigation of ANY kind, I want to be made aware. They are a minor and still on my watch. I will be at the school for EVERY viewing of Facebook, EVERY locker search. That not only protects the administration, but also my child from having anything planted or opened without being aware what they have subjected themselves to. I don't necessarily completely disagree with reasons why this has to exist, but the school better be prepared to have parents and the proper authorities there when their child is being investigated in EVERY case.
Terry Flanagan May 21, 2012 at 03:35 PM
Part of the problem with the educational system and the reason we are seeing lower test scores across the country is that schools are required to take responsibility not only for educating our children but essentally rearing them as well. We cannot expect the schools to police our children and educate them too. Something is going to suffer. If parents expect schols to assume total responsibilty for their children then there are military schools and private schools that will take on the roles of teacher, parent, counselor, and disciplinarian. Parents need to take more control in the lives of their children, particularly in the technology age with all of the social media outlets available. The school cannot be the sole arbiter of child-raising issues. There needs to be strong cooperation and communication between parents and school authorities. Parents cannot abandon their responsibilities to schools and schools cannot usurp parental authority. The roles of both parents and school authorities need to be clearly defined so that there are no surprises and I think parents need to take more responsibility for raising their children and not leave it up to the schools to resolve all behavioral problems.
Bob McQuillan May 21, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Terry, I agree with you but attend any school board meeting in Geneva and the topic of the "social and emotional well being of students," is always discussed. The schools are already taking over mamy roles that parent should be handling. The taxpayers are paying for things that weren't part of the school system just several years ago. In the 2010-11 school year here is a list of the number of staff related to the topic 9 Guidance Counselors - certainly necessary but 9 seems high 8 Psychologists - this position and number is scary 7 Social Workers - really, in Geneva? Maybe the schools are too involved with raising children. That would be a great topic for an open & honest discussion.
Tony Pronenko May 21, 2012 at 04:34 PM
This is surely a difficult situation to reach a consensus on. Parents must get involved with their children, sure. But parents also need to trust in how they raised their children and the lessons they taught them and let them make decisions on their own. While in school making these "decisions" of theirs, it is the administrations job to safeguard their health.. among other things. This is the responsibility we bestow on the GMSS staff everyday we send our children to school. I think Mr. Bleau did the right thing, but maybe in the wrong way. It is a tough job to watch over that many students while at the same time ensuring their education. Whenever one of my children ended up in a "situation" (and they happen) I was always called personally by Mr. Bleau and we had a sit down with my child present to resolve the situation. Why that did not happen in this case I cannot say. But it should have. The parents should have been present when the school viewed the FB page. Everybody, not just kids, need to be aware that FB is NOT private. Anything posted is fair game and it is amazing to me how many people are not aware of that fact. Yet school officials are doing nothing more than making assumptions ANYTIME they intercept a FB post and try to interpret its meaning. This is EXACTLY why parents should be present ANYTIME a similar scenario comes up.
Jeff Ward May 21, 2012 at 04:45 PM
Tony, To be clear, the mother was called and asked to immediately come in, but she was out of town. Jeff
Terry Flanagan May 21, 2012 at 05:50 PM
Bob, I've spoken with some teachers who are overwhelmed sometimes by some of the social and behavioral issues they have to deal with in the classroom. While teachers have more training now in these areas than they once did, the question remains as to whether schools should be dealing with some of the issues they currently deal with. I would prefer to see schools focus on education. In our zeal to fit everyone in and to make sure no child is left behind, we are actually in danger of having all children left behind. As the schools grapple with social issues and behavioral problems that are better left to parents and other institutions, I believe our educational standards are suffering as a result. For example, consider the now common practice of sending in grief counselors to schools in the wake of some tragedy. We used to have parents, family, and church ministers deal with a lot of these issues outside of school and I don't think any of us are less well-adjusted because of it. The schools are taking on ever-expanding roles in the lives of our children and they need to get back to their primary role.
Jennifer Cortez May 21, 2012 at 06:07 PM
I agree that FB accounts need parental supervision, and if there is a perceived threat against others that the school needs to get involved. However, the fact remains that a 13 year-old child was interrogated and forced to open her FB account with no one there to represent and protect her. Yes her mother was called, and was out of town, but was an attempt then made to have her father come in? If no parent was able to come in (as many of us working parents would not be able to at a moment's notice), then arrangements should have been made to have this occur when a parent could be there. There was no one there to protect this student. Can you imagine being 13 years old and having several adults in authoritative roles at your school pressuring you and telling you "have" to open your FB page and show them everything, and knowing that not one of these adults is on your side? This is bullying! And while Geneva schools do not have a great record when it comes to stopping bullying or caring about those being bullied, they now have the reputation of being the bully themselves.
Jeff Ward May 21, 2012 at 06:14 PM
Jennifer, We will have to agree to disagree. When the principal made it abundantly clear this is exactly what would happen in that early school year assembly, it's not bullying. The time to object, was then, not now. And what it the student had threatened to bring a gun to school on Facebook? Do we really want to have to wait for the parents to show up? If the parents don't do their job - and most don't - then the school have to do it. GMSS did the right thing. Jeff
S May 21, 2012 at 06:21 PM
I agree with you completely Julie. The thing I can't stand any longer is the claim that it was sexual in nature and nothing illegal. REALLY??? Read the Illinois Criminal Code - a 13 year old 7th grader having sex IS ILLEGAL, even if it is consensual and with another minor! See 720 ILCS 5/11-1.50 if anyone doubts this is true. It is called criminal sexual abuse and as was pointed out, the school is a mandatory reporter. The school did the right thing and I support them 100%. Also, if this happened last fall, why is the blog post just being written now - because the family is mad that Mr. Bleau was name administrator of the year? I also have kids at GMSS and they were put on notice that Facebook and text messages are fair game if they are causing a problem. My children and 5 of their friends have also said that this one incident is the only one they know of - this is not happening on a regular basis at GMSS.
Bob McQuillan May 21, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Terry I could not agree with you more. While school is a major part of a child's life, it is not their entire life. I don't know when and who allowed schools into all aspects of a child's life. If a child has behavioral problems, it is the parent's responsibility to take the necessary steps to deal with the problem. Somewhere along the line, schools have taken over that responsibility. It needs to change.
Scott May 21, 2012 at 07:04 PM
Getting involved is the correct thing to do. However, their method is 100% wrong. Whatever happened to the School Administration to Parent relationship ? The school has multiple emergency contacts for every student. Interrogating a 13 year old with out a parent present or a parents concent should never occur. I have personal experience with the Administartion at Geneva Middle School pulling my daughter out of class and interrogating her multiple times without my knowledge. When confronted, they told me they feel it's their right to interrogate any student at any time to garner information whether a student was directly involved in a situation or not. Wrong ! Call the parent or parents of the student(s) involved. Inform them of the situation and as rational adults assess the situation and develop an appropriate plan of action. That’s the way adults in a partnership would approach this situation. If you don’t think you’re in a partnership relationship with every parent of every student in your charge, you might want to consider looking for another profession. For you parents who are not full access Friends with your kids on Facebook and check their posts regularly, aren't following them on Twitter, and aren't talking to your kids regularly about everything going on in their lives(no matter how hard that conversation may be), shame on you. You might want to look yourself in the mirror and ask, Why did I have kids ?
Terry Flanagan May 21, 2012 at 07:32 PM
Our children have always been at risk, which is why parents must always be vigilant and must take an active role in the lives of their children. Facebook does not present any new threats. It just provides a new and more far-reaching stage for the drama of our lives to unfold. Parents must be responsible for monitoring their children's use of social media. Parents should be friends on their minor child's Facebook page and have full access to those accounts. However, there is no reason to expect that anyone else should be allowed access to those accounts unless they have legal authority to do so. We currently have an on-going controversy about whether or not employers should be allowed access to the FB accounts of employees. I question the school's authority or need to access a student's account. If the school suspects illegal activity or a threat to life or property then they should report the problem to authorities as any of us should and let the authorities deal with it appropriately. Let the local authorities conduct searches and investigations under the governing law. Not only does the school's action pose a constitutional question, but it exposes the school to possible litigation for exceeding the limits of their authority. Let the schools teach and let the police deal with any suspected criminal activity or threats.
Jeff Ward May 21, 2012 at 07:36 PM
Scott, What if a parent is the abuser and the child tries to protect them? I love your last paragraph and your school/parent conference plan sounds nice, but the reality is most parents have such an entitlement mentality that it almost always goes against the school. Considering my experience with it coaching travel soccer, I've called many D304 teachers, principals, and counselors to ask whether the "my kid can do no wrong syndrome" is getting worse. And they all say it has. It finally gets to the point where you run out of time and energy and are left with no choice but to do what the parents won't. Again, love the last paragraph! Jeff
Julie May 21, 2012 at 07:56 PM
Scott, this is an excellent reply! While I do not know the specifics as to why the FB page was looked at, I would hope the content was an urgent matter and that is why the school acted on it in the manner they did. Being directly involved with someone affected by the Columbine Shooting, I would hope and pray that Geneva would act the way they did in this situation. If anyone's safety was at stake, then I am fine with the school acting the way it did. If it was for anything less, then I agree with your plan. And because I do look in the mirror, if the school contacted me and said to come to the school immediately, I would drop WHATEVER I was doing @ work and get there ASAP. My husband would do the same. Neither of us are brain surgeons, so we would inform our employer that we needed to leave for an emergency. I often refer to FB as the devil and my kids fully understand that anything they put on it better be harmless to them or anyone else.
Jennifer Cortez May 21, 2012 at 08:11 PM
Jeff, If a parent is at work and can not leave, (or out of town as this mother was) how is that not doing their job? I am a nurse and there is no way I could leave unless one of my children was hurt, this certainly doesn't mean I am not doing my job! Also, why were the girls who were spreading the rumors not hauled in and made to display their FB pages? Why was it only the girl who the rumor was about? And as I stated in my original comment, I do believe different actions should be taken if what is on FB is a threat to student's safety....that was not the case here however.
Paul Bryant May 21, 2012 at 09:25 PM
The GMSS administration was on the right track, but they took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Notify the parents, notify the proper authorities. That's their job - as some else put it - as "reporters". They should not be "interrogators". If laws were broken, they should state such to the parents in strong enough terms such that the parents know to provide representation for their child - whether that's themselves or someone else. They should also contact the proper authorities that would handle any necessary criminal investigation. By not doing both, they open themselves up to litigation - with your tax dollars paying the bill. If laws were not broken, they need to at least get documented parental consent before forcing any child to provide access to whatever account is in question.
Scott May 21, 2012 at 09:58 PM
Jeff, I'm not sure where you came up with the abuse scenario. But, if your a school administrator or work with kids in any professional capacity and suspect abuse you better not be wasting time interrogating a child about their Facebook post. Your obligated at that point to become the child’s advocate and call child protective services and then step out of the way. Their first act will be to deal with the parent. As far as the "my child can do no wrong syndrome" goes... Get a thick skin and do your job. Senior Administrators like principals are paid to have tough conversations with parents about their kids. If you can’t, you don’t belong in that role. Nobody likes to here that their kid has a problem, is a problem, or they messed up bad enough to here from the Principal at their school. That is human nature. If you present the facts to the parent, you can invoke school disciplinary action if it’s warranted in a school policy violation situation. Otherwise, it’s up to the parent to parent. The school has no business parenting. Sometimes the old ways were just better. I’m not that old but, I do remember when I was in K through 12. When you messed up or were causing trouble, you were called to the office. You were told why and you sat there until someone personally responsible for you showed up, had a discussion with whatever authority needed to have that discussion and then you left with that individual and the situation was in their hands.
Scott May 21, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Terry, Nicely said. I agree whole heartedly. Scott
julie gesell May 21, 2012 at 11:02 PM
Hi Bob. As I finish up my 26th year as a school social work in a school district with only 4 school social workers and 2 psychologists, everyone living in Geneva should be grateful Geneva has 7 school social workers and 8 psychologists! I would be happy to explain our many, many, many roles in the school setting. Next time you see me in the backyard, just come on over and we'll talk. Julie Gesell, your neighbor.
LOL May 22, 2012 at 04:08 AM
I agree in general that the school should be receptive to potentially illegal, dangerous, and disruptive events or postings that may occur. However, the occurrence of such events or posting does not automatically warrant unlimited power to search through a student's life. The issue lies in Mr. Ward's support of the administration's untrained invasions of privacy. Mr. Ward believes, "if the parents don't do their job - and most don't - then the school have [sic] to do it." However, the principal of GMSS is not automatically granted unlimited search rights simply because of some hearsay he received. In advocating such far-reaching search powers for administrators, Mr. Ward opens up a deep can of legal worms. Fortunately for the students of GMSS, Facebook is on their side even if their teachers and administrators aren't: https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=326598317390057 Facebook notes that those (administrators) that gain access to otherwise-private information on Facebook may be held liable for the information they see. In today's school environment where every action is taken to PREVENT liability suits, it is unfortunate that GMSS does such a poor job of handling private information. As Mr. Flanagan points out, the school's first priority in a situation involving private information should be contacting trained legal authorities, rather than allowing the principal to search through an unaccompanied 13 year old's profile.
Justin Eggar May 22, 2012 at 03:34 PM
This is a more than mildly complicated situation. There isn't an easy button. If you call the authorities every time a student looks cross ways, pretty soon our students are all going to be criminals. Where I grew up students were still spanked (I grew up in the Fiji Islands). They didn't ask parents - it was part of the culture that in school if you acted like you need discipline you received it. I'm thankful that I received spankings instead of spending time at the police station explaining why I put gum in Sally's hair (example). I'm not opening the spanking discussion, that's not what this is about. However, I'm not sure if going to the police for every issue is doing children any favors. One of the worst things about the US is our consumerist tendency to say "what we would have done". Given our excellent 20/20 hindsight, we all should have won every bowl, made a billion dollars, and won at life. However, that is obviously not the case. Perhaps our opinions should consider all sides of a situation rather than layering on our personal feelings about it. Btw, can we ban some of these users that aren't using their names? It's clearly in the TOS: http://geneva.patch.com/terms
Tony Pronenko May 22, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Jeff, I will have to give you this one. You are absolutely right. But then we have to ask ourselves where does the line get drawn? Who gets to be the one to interpret the posts made by students, and who gets to judge what constitutes a threat? As said previously this is a very fine line that we are approaching. Maybe you are also correct about WHEN the objections should have come - when policy was made clear at the beginning of the year. As parents and members of the "school community" I think we then have an obligation to discuss this in great detail prior to the next school year and make the policy abundantly clear to all. Of course... many will say, "wasn't that already done?" Sure. But it seems it needs to be done once again. And yes.. the school did the right thing. I just wonder if the flipping through multiple FB pages on the girls account was necessary. Ahh.. but then again, I don't think any of us can claim to know EXACTLY what and how this went down unless we were there.
Aaron May 22, 2012 at 04:21 PM
I might be an "old school" parent, but I don't think a 13-14 year old on Facebook is a good idea. This is just horrible.
dana May 22, 2012 at 07:46 PM
the only questionable issue here is how it was handled in his office which we may never know. personally i support the school, doubt they behaved inappropriately and am glad they take action when necessary. if the student did not want to give out the facebook info the parents could have been called in.
Noel G. Rooks May 23, 2012 at 04:34 PM
Double edged sword, I think. The administration does have a right to investigate things that are harmful and/or disruptive regarding students. That said, I think the bugaboo here from what I've read is that they questioned her without benefit of her parents being there? Which they should have done. In an abuse case, Jeff, as mandated reporters, the school would be obligated to call the authorities, not the parents, so that makes the point moot. I guess my question is, if the mom was out of town, where was dad? I don't know the people involved, but I would think that a 13 year old would still be staying with/have someone supervising her if mom was away. The greater question, too, is, as a parent I would think mom and dad would be more closely supervising what goes on on their daughter's FB page. But then, devil's advocate, what if the school did call the parents and they weren't concerned? (Not saying that happened in this case but it has happened before) What is the school's role to protect students then? And how do you protect people from their own dumb 13 year old selves? I'm glad I grew up pre social media, if half the dumb stuff I did in high school were eternally preserved...how embarrassing.

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