Big Brother Sees Your Tweets

San Jac student disciplined for bomb threat.

EDUCATION

Big Brother Sees Your Tweets
San Jac student disciplined for bomb threat

By Craig Hlavaty

As much as social media broadens our horizons, be it through interpersonal or business relations, it creates a whole new universe of privacy issues. Friendswood-area college student Ashley Marzullo found that out firsthand recently after making an offhand remark on Twitter two weeks ago on a particularly nice day of weather.

Marzullo, 22, currently enrolled at San Jacinto College's south campus off Beamer, remarked out loud on Twitter that she hoped for someone to call in a bomb threat to the school. The tweet went out to her seven followers, which is a cap-gun snap compared to the atomic number of followers that celebrities and other media personalities can command on a daily basis. The communications major thought nothing of the outgoing message and went on about her day at school.

Marzullo obviously didn't wish her college ill will; she was merely suffering from late-semester stress. Anyone who remembers his college days can attest to being frustrated. The weather was pretty good that day in Houston, if Hair Balls remembers.

In today's new world of spiderweb-like social networks and swiftly changing forms of communication, anything you type, tweet, or post can be held against you. Whether that is in a court of law or a court of your peers depends on the severity and weight of your message. Even if you are joking, someone out there may not understand you are being humorous.

On April 1, Marzullo received a letter from Joanna Zimmerman, the Dean of Student Development at San Jac South, that she was required to set up an appointment to meet Zimmerman on April 6. The missive went on to cite and describe Marzullo's offense in vague terms, referencing a section focusing on disruptive conduct in the student handbook

The note also said that Marzullo was not to return to classes until she had met with Zimmerman, effectively "suspending" her until the matter was resolved. In the meantime, Marzullo was stumped as to what infraction the letter referenced, completely forgetting her previous tweet. She didn't refrain from going to class with only a month left until final exams, especially if she had no clue what she was being brought in for.

Someone in the chain of command at San Jac had been alerted to the tweet — that much is true. Things got even weirder when Zimmerman and Marzullo finally met in the dean's office. At the one-on-one meeting, Zimmerman produced a printout of the student's Twitter page, complete with the offending tweet.

Marzullo describes the conversation as terse and confusing. "She asked me first if I knew what I had done, and I had no clue. She asked me if I was at all serious about the bomb threat. Of course, I had no intention of doing anything like that. It was a nice day, though," she says.

Where the wheels hit the road is when Marzullo claims Zimmerman remarked, "We monitor all Twitter and Facebook accounts of our students." This brings a whole new shadowy demeanor to what should have rightfully been an open-and-shut case of making a bad joke. Zimmerman would only say that the "police" had seen the tweet and reported it to them. What police, though? None were specified.

Is it possible for a community college to track all the social networking activity of its students? San Jac is a working school, and it boasts thousands and thousands of students, some of whom are out of state taking online courses. Visions of some secret underground mission control filled with cigarette smoke and sweaty dudes with mustaches abound.

Furthermore, this could mean that Twitter or some other service might be looking after us by running searches on certain chains of phrasing, akin to the same technology you may hear people flailing madly about on their respective airwaves. Words like "gun," "president" and "bomb" are red flags, obviously.

We spoke with Terri Fowle, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Marketing for the San Jac system, and got the administration's side of the story, but ended up with more questions unanswered in the process.

"The college has never suspended anybody due to anything on a social network. We only monitor the college's Web sites" Fowle said. The college maintains a presence on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and even Flickr. Fowle also serves as the de facto social media coordinator of the college. "We do not by any means follow our students," Fowle added for extra emphasis.

We still don't know why Zimmerman would make the remark, which can be horribly misconstrued. Hopefully there is no cabal of techies reading each and every undergrad's stray, drunken or otherwise lifted online communication. For her part, Marzullo has to write an apology to the staff and students of the school to make peace with the administration. The school was not evacuated on March 31, oddly enough.

Let this be a lesson to everyone: Just kill off a nonexistent aunt or grandmother if you really need a day for yourself or your skin.
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EDUCATION

HISD Gets Creative In Faking Dropout Rates

By Margaret Downing

Houston ISD is investigating more than 70 cases of falsified records in which students were recorded as transfers when they were actually dropouts, Superintendent Terry Grier tells Hair Balls. "It appears as if some folks were involved in fabricating requests for student records," he said.

The district has already verified many of the cases and is focusing its attention on two district employees who are associated with Kashmere High School and Key Middle School, Grier said. Yes, the same two schools that multitasked bad behavior to entirely new levels just keep on giving the administration fits.

Here's how it worked, according to Grier, adopting the persona of an employee after a student didn't show up at school for several weeks:

"I knew you had dropped out, I knew that. But versus going to get you and trying to get you back in school, I fabricated a letter saying, 'Please send me a copy of [the student's] records.' Then I would take that record I had fabricated, drop it in your file and didn't have to count you as a dropout."

Instead, Grier said, the student would go down as a "transfer" out of HISD.

"And we actually have evidence of where people went in and it appears they cut and pasted copies of that logo from another school, put it on that letterhead and we are investigating that right now," he says. "We have found over 70 of those situations and we are now verifying from different schools around the country that in fact that is not your logo and that in fact this is not [an official from another school's] signature requesting this, and that will have a dramatic effect on a school's dropout rate."

Grier said it appeared the situation was "ongoing."

"Right now it's those two schools; that's the only evidence we had," he said. "We have verified a number, but we haven't verified them all. We've got to verify all of them to make sure the dropout information is correct."
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DOING IT DAILY

There is a ton of new stuff each day on the Houston Press blogs; you're only getting a taste of it here in the print edition. We break news, we cover sports, analyze the hot TV shows and dig up the things that make Houston and Texas unique. Head to http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs and under "Tools" on the top-right side of the page, use the "categories" drop-down menu to find these stories:

SPORTS

What if Butler's almost-buzzer-beater had gone in? We looked at how lives and legacies would have changed. We offered a (pessimistic, unfortunately) look at the Astros' prospects and examined the five weirdest Astro videos on the net. We also met up with the Aeros' enforcer who's a softhearted humanitarian off the ice.

EDUCATION

Besides breaking the dropout story above, we had the details on HISD's budget crunch and pending layoffs, the Galveston school district's efforts to persuade voters to build a $35 million stadium even as they still struggle with Ike, and how some Houston board trustees are hoping to save the troubled CEP alternative-ed school.

POP ROCKS, TELEVISION & WHATEVER

Our pop culture guru urged you to watch the surprisingly good Supernatural, we traveled to Beaumont (of all places) to hear NPR's Sarah Vowell disparage the locals, we had the world's whitest guy explain to Jay-Z why the "Granite State of Mind" is better than the original. And we continued to despair at the quality of the American Idol contestants.

COURTS, POLITICAL ANIMALS

A group of Houston pastors warned us all of the transvestites who would be invading women's restrooms thanks to Annise Parker; an item on an Aggie dermatologist bragging of laying off an "Obama-voting" employee sparked hundreds of comments; a former judge pleaded guilty to keying a neighbor's car; and we offered our thoughts on what a jury of Billy Joe Shaver's peers should consist of.

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