Too Much Information

One of the fastest growing security issues for K-12 schools is the use of the social networking site Facebook. Many of Facebook’s 400 million users are students and faculty. The alarming increase of shared information has led to Facebook’s possession of the largest database of human information ever compiled. The way that this information is obtained and used poses a threat to the safety of students and staff.

Many students would be quick to assert that they just use Facebook for fun. They don’t believe that they are at risk. It is Facebook’s vague and complicated privacy structure that leads to this misunderstanding. No matter how a student controls his or her privacy, it remains true that Facebook wants user information to become more and more public. Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt contends that the sharing of information should be viewable to everyone because that is, “the way that the world is moving.”

So, how does the availability of this information affect students? The following examples illustrate how things have gone farther than many realize.
  • A graduate of a Mukilteo High School (Wash.) recently used Facebook to make a threat against his former school saying that he would, “pull a Virginia Tech.”
  • New Jersey students used Facebook to organize a statewide walkout protest. Unbeknownst to school administrators, over 17,000 students joined the Facebook page in support of the protest.
  • A Horace Mann Middle School (Wis.) student used Facebook last month to announce that he would soon take the lives of himself and his classmates.
  • The average Facebook user has more than 130 friends. But with students typically having hundreds more than the average user, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Students use Facebook for more than making threats and organizing protests. Over 100 million Facebook users access the site through their mobile devices. Administrators, teachers and staff need to be aware that students are accessing the site while at school. While accessing Facebook at school, over 38 percent more of those students are being bullied or harassed. In addition, 44 percent of students have seen a sexually explicit picture of a classmate online. The use of Facebook at school is a risk for students’ physical and mental safety.

Consider the personal safety risks of Facebook, as well. Largely as a result of ignorance, too many users, both students and school staff members, are posting private information. It is not uncommon, for example, for a user to post a status that states, “Can’t wait for our 10-day Disney World vacation that starts in two weeks!” or “Home by myself all night — so bored.” With the number of “friends” viewing that information measuring in the hundreds, who knows what kind of dangers might surface? Now, consider the fact that if I post a comment containing personal information to your status, the comment (usually containing my full name and photo) can also be seen by all of your friends.

Correspondence between teachers and students via Facebook is yet another problem. Schools across the country have experienced inappropriate contact between teachers and students on Facebook. The Columbia (Mo.) School Board recently proposed revisions to their staff/student relations policy due to over 17 concrete policy violations. Those violations include everything from unsuitable physical conduct to unethical gifts and presents. More and more parents are complaining about such behavior. The attorney for the Tennessee Department of Education is recommending that all teachers end Facebook friendships with students.

Recently, Consumer Reports listed the top seven Facebook vulnerabilities from a personal standpoint. They are as follows.

1. Using a Weak Password
Avoid simple names or words, even with numbers tacked on the end!
2. Leaving Your Full Birth Date in Your Profile
Beware identity thieves — edit your personal information!

3. Overlooking Useful Privacy Controls
Limit and restrict access to your personal information!

4. Posting Your Child's Name in a Caption
Remove and delete names in photo tags and captions!

5. Mentioning That You'll Be Away From Home
Don’t advertise potential opportunities for crime — wait until after the event to share details!

6. Letting Search Engines Find You
Go to the “Search” section in privacy controls and select “only friends” for search results!

7. Permitting Youngsters to Use Facebook Unsupervised
Heed the age restriction of “13 and over” and oversee all on-line activities!

Clearly, the way Facebook information is obtained and used poses a threat to the safety of students and staff. That threat can be addressed through education and accountability. Let’s proactively inform school stakeholders and collaboratively tackle the issues!

Paul Timm is a board-certified Physical Security Professional (PSP), president of RETA Security, Inc. and a nationally acclaimed expert in school security. Bairet Bazemore is a senior in Business Administration at Central Pennsylvania College. He enjoys golf, piano and reading.

About the Authors

Paul Timm, PSP, is the president of Chicago-based RETA Security and is the author of “School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program.” He can be reached via, or