Amid a heightened awareness of school safety issues in the wake of shootings this spring, local districts could spend thousands of dollars next year to identify and receive instant alerts of potential threats made on social media.
They’re considering joining together to pay for a Vermont-based company, Social Sentinel, to screen public posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for language that indicates possible threats.
Region 5 superintendents met Wednesday at the Education Service Center to discuss the program, which sends a notification to designated administrators when a possible threat is identified.
Tweets or Instagram posts that include “language of harm,” like “kill,” “gun” or “ice,” could be flagged as a threat. The service can identify the school district that could be a target of the threat by looking at other words in the message, the locations of the posters’ friends or connections or other methods, and can notify administrators in that district by text or email.
“Everybody wants to be in front of the next school shooter,” Social Sentinel Vice President Jesse Leib said. It can also detect threats relating to self-harm or students who are a danger to themselves, he said.
“Somehow, if you dial the clock back, there was always telegraphed intent,” he said, referencing school shootings in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe this spring.
At least four Southeast Texas students were arrested this spring for allegedly making terroristic threats: two at Lumberton Middle School, one at Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School and one at Kirbyville High School, who said “he hated everyone and wanted to kill everyone,” according to police.
At least one-third of the region’s 33 districts reported receiving real or rumored threats in the month after the Feb. 14 Parkland shooting.
Cleveland ISD superintendent Darrell Myers, who said his district has used Social Sentinel for about four months, receives about two alerts daily. The district northeast of Houston has about 5,700 students.
It takes “about 30 seconds” to determine if a post is serious and should be investigated, or if it’s a false alarm, like athletes tweeting about “killing it” during a game, Myers said.
“When we first started, I’d get things from Cleveland, Ohio, but as we’ve evolved, we’ve gotten a narrower focus,” he said. “It’s not a be-all-end-all” of staying on top of social media, he said said, especially because it can’t search private messages or networks like Snapchat or Kik, but it has “worked well for us” so far, he said.
Social Sentinel would cost districts with fewer than 20,000 students each $18,500 a year, Leib said, but Region 5 is looking at forming a consortium to cut down the price for smaller districts. If enough schools sign on, it would cost each district up to $2 per student, Region 5 Executive Director Danny Lovett said.
Kountze ISD superintendent John Ferguson called the service “a nobrainer.” The district handed out laptop computers to each of its 1,100 students last spring as part of 1-to-1 technology program.
KISD already monitors students’ activities on those devices, but Social Sentinel would make it easier to find posts made on personal phones or laptops, he said.
The company can’t monitor specific students’ profiles, or tell the district when repeated threats are coming from the same account, but districts can use the individual alerts to identify trends on their own.
Myers said he also keeps a file of each day’s reported alerts, which serve as proof of the district’s efforts. In the case of an incident, “I can show if I didn’t have prior knowledge,” he said, and “I can show that we are actively monitoring what our kids are doing.”
Santa Fe High School officials have been criticized recently for their responses to alleged threats made before the May 18 shooting.
Football players were allegedly threatened over Snapchat on May 9 and in a Youtube comment on May 18, the Houston Chronicle reported. School officials were notified, but the players’ parents were not, according to the report.
Local districts will decide whether to join the Region 5 consortium during the next few weeks and aim to have the service set up before school starts in August if enough schools sign on.
The move comes as districts are also looking at ways to improve campus security, including arming certain employees or increasing police presence.
“I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that all of them are at least discussing the combinations of adding law enforcement or arming teachers or both,” Lovett said last month.
At least four districts in the region will have armed staff this fall under state laws that allow designated school employees to carry a concealed weapon in gun-free zones to respond to a potential intruder or armed student.