Hidden surveillance: Administrators browse MySpace to track “inappropriate” behavior

Hidden surveillance: Administrators browse MySpace to track "inappropriate" behavior

Mollie Javerbaum / The Campanile | March 15 2006

When Economics teacher Eric Bloom read about parties at senior Cullen Hollyn-Taub's house on another Palo Alto High School student's MySpace profile, Bloom's only response was to make a casual joke in front of his class.

However, Hollyn-Taub got off lucky.

Unbeknownst to many Paly MySpace users, the administration surveys student profiles, and has taken action approximately 10 times this school year, in response to the content on students' MySpaces.

A social networking website, http://www.MySpace.com has quickly become popular among Paly students. The "Palo Alto High School" group on the site currently claims 566 members, including alumni.

Assistant Principal Doug Walker and school resource police officers Ken Kratt and Marianna Villaescsa have a MySpace account that they access weekly in order to check Paly students' MySpaces for inappropriate content.

Although Walker cannot take disciplinary action based on profiles edited outside of school, he does occasionally notify parents if he finds inappropriate content on student profiles.

"If it is something outrageous, we will contact the parents," Walker said. "We just try to make people aware, try to make their parents aware and try to talk to the kids about the problem."

Walker listed images or references to drinking, weapons or inappropriate dress as "outrageous" content worthy of a call home.

Most MySpace profiles include a sidebar of "Details" listing basic information about the user, such as gender, religion and sexual orientation.

This box often also contains the category "Smoke/Drink," causing many Paly student members to disclose whether or not they engage in illegal behaviors when they first open an account. However, Walker said that threats made on MySpace are his primary concern.

According to Walker, the location where the threats were made can be traced, and if it is determined to be on school campus, he can and will take disciplinary action. Walker said he would like to block MySpace access on Paly computers, an action already taken by Saint Francis High School, a private school in Mountain View.

Despite the administration's concerns, no Paly student has been suspended based on the content of his or her MySpace.

According to the MySpace Terms and Conditions that users must agree to before creating an account, membership is terminated if a profile's content is "patently offensive and promotes racism, bigotry, hatred or physical harm of any kind against any group or individual," or "harasses or advocates harassment of another person."

Despite these terms, Walker has dealt with various student complaints about insults or threats made over MySpace.

In such cases, Walker calls the offending student into his office to discuss the problem, but because he lacks the authority to administer punishment for threats made over the Internet, he refers these cases to the police.

MySpace members are given the option of setting their profiles to "Private," which allows only the MySpace members one has accepted as a "Friend" to view one's profile.

Junior Nick Weber, who has three MySpace profiles, noted the importance of this option in preventing administrators or other unwanted MySpace members from viewing profile information.

"If people knew that Mr. Walker was viewing their MySpaces, they would probably all set their profiles to 'private' to avoid any punishment," Weber said.

He also made the distinction between posting a comment on a user's profile and sending a private message that only the user is able to read.

"When people post comments, they should know that the comments can be seen by anyone," Weber said. "They should send [private] messages instead."

Junior Rachel Steinberg, another MySpace member, believes the administration's access to student profiles is overstepping their authority as administrators.

"When I created my MySpace account, I definitely did not expect teachers would be looking at it," Steinberg said. "It is my personal business. I know that I am making a choice to put it out in public, but I don't think it has anything to do with the school."

Another Paly MySpace member, Barbara (pseudonym), said now that she has been informed of the administration's access to MySpaces, she will delete a reference to alcohol from her profile.

"Now that I know that [administrators and police] are looking at them, I will obviously change [the alcohol reference]," she said. "It's just not worth risking punishment."






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