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School officials' Facebook rummaging prompts mom's privacy crusade

Pam Broviak

A mother who says her middle-school daughter was forced to let school officials browse the 13-year-old girl’s private Facebook page is speaking out against the practice because, she says, "other parents are scared to talk about it."

Pam Broviak, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Geneva, Ill., says her daughter was traumatized when the principal of Geneva Middle School South forced the child to log in to her Facebook account, then rummaged through the girl's private information.

"What a violation of my daughter's privacy this whole episode was," Broviak said. The incident took "a huge toll on my daughter, who ended up crying through most of the rest of the day and therefore missed most of her classes. She was embarrassed and very upset."

There have been several descriptions lately of Facebook prying by schools – and one lawsuit was filed recently by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of an anonymous plaintiff against a school district that allegedly demanded a student’s social media passwords. But Broviak may be the first parent to go public with concerns about what she sees as serious violations of student privacy.


In a conversation with msnbc.com, Broviak said she confronted school officials about the incident involving her daughter soon after it occurred last fall and was told that they routinely investigate student issues by asking kids to log into their social networking pages -- or cellphones -- in the presence of administrators. And she said her daughter and other students told her they are frequently called into the principal’s office and told that they can’t leave until they surrender their passwords or unlock their phones and allow school officials to browse their personal information.

"(Students) let them see the accounts because otherwise, they are not allowed to leave the room. And that is just wrong," she said.

Kent Mutchler, superintendent of Geneva schools, said in an interview with msnbc.com that he couldn't comment on Broviak’s daughter because privacy rules prevent him from publicly discussing an individual student’s situation. But he said Broviak's description of district policy is inaccurate.

"We would never demand someone's password. When you have someone's password, you open yourself up to other issues," Mutchler said. "But if we have a disruptive situation, a school (official) will ask to see the page, and if the student refuses, we call the parents."

But principals only request access to students' social media pages under extreme circumstances, Mutchler said.

"There are different levels of concern. If there is a drug trafficking suspicion, we'll get the police involved. If it's something like cyberbullying, we'll say, 'This has been reported to us,' and ask to see the page," he said.

Often, students volunteer before they are even asked, he said.

"We ask, 'Is there something you want to show us?' that sort of thing. And they volunteer," he said. 

Such incidents are very rare among district middle schools, he said, contradicting Broviak's assertion that the inspections are commonplace. 

"It happens a half-dozen to a dozen times per year," he said.

Broviak's public complaint comes at a time when schools, employers and lawmakers around the country are wrestling with sticky privacy issues surrounding social networks. The state Legislature in Illinois is considering legislation that would make it illegal for employers to demand access to workers’ or applicants’ private social media information. That law is silent on the issue of schools and social media snooping, but federal legislation introduced last month by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., would extend the protections to students, too.

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Broviak said she didn't think school officials should ever look at a child's personal social media page or cellphone without first contacting parents.

"It's just wrong for them to do this, but parents are afraid to talk about it, because they are worried, 'Are they going to target my kid?'" she said.

Additionally, she said, looking at a kids' social media page violates an entire family's privacy, even if school officials don’t intend to look at posts involving other family members.

"The whole family is exposed in this," she said. "Some families communicate through Facebook. What if her aunt was going through a divorce or had an illness? And now there's these anonymous people reading through this information."

When the first incident occurred in the fall, Broviak said she didn't know what to do -- and initially chose to let it drop for fear that complaining might make things worse for her daughter. But she said reports from her daughter that other kids have been treated the same way and a recent spate of news stories surrounding the issue pushed her to speak up. Three weeks ago she published a detailed accounting of events on her personal blog, and this week agreed to be interviewed by msnbc.com.

"It's really important for people to talk about this and know what's going on," she said. "And I'm really glad that the state Legislature and Congress are considering laws to deal with this."

Her daughter, meanwhile, has learned an important but sad lesson through this experience, Broviak said.

"It's taught her to use better judgment with adults," she said. "Basically, what (they) showed her was you can’t trust anyone. Her trust in and the respect of the adults at her school has been shattered to the point that she is struggling to look beyond this abuse and allow for the education process to occur."

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