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On alert, online

More districts watch social media for posts in which students threaten others or themselves--and take action
High school mentors help teach middle school students about online safety and responsible use of social media at Columbia Public Schools in Missouri.
High school mentors help teach middle school students about online safety and responsible use of social media at Columbia Public Schools in Missouri.

Only a handful of school districts attempt rigorous, round-the-clock monitoring of social media traffic to spot threats against their schools or students. Leaders in these districts say the extra level of security acts as an early-warning system that can prevent young people from hurting themselves or others.

And students who know they’re being monitored are less likely to cyberbully their classmates or to post photos, comments or other material that will embarrass them later in life, district leaders say.

“This is the natural evolution of school security—we have to be vigilant in the digital playground,” says Superintendent Clayton Wilcox of Maryland’s Washington County Public Schools, which started monitoring social media this year. “I think we’re probably four or five years away from everybody doing it.”

But social media monitoring has sparked controversy, with some criticizing the practice as an invasion of privacy, even though districts and the services they hire generally look only at public posts. Monitoring public posts also won’t uncover serious threats that are more likely to be made in private, says Justin W. Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

“Publicly available sources only scratch the surface of what teenagers are doing online,” Patchin says. “It’s a better approach to develop a culture where everybody in a school community looks out for one another.”

Unheard cries for help

Monitoring traffic on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites is only the latest step administrators at Monrovia USD in California have taken to increase safety after four teen suicides in recent years.

The monitoring that began last fall at Monrovia’s two high schools will allow the district to respond quickly to threats and provide families with immediate counseling or other support, says Superintendent Katherine Fundukian Thorossian.

“Social networks have provided our students with a silent, yet very public forum of communicating that has limited our ability to respond to their needs,” says Thorossian. Social media is “silent” because students most likely to see a suicide threat on social media are not capable of helping the person in distress, she says.

What makes potentially-troubling posts stand out over seemingly-innocent activity are certain keywords. Analysts with Geo Listening, Monrovia’s monitoring service, review traffic flagged by keywords throughout the day. Threats that appear to be serious are referred to school administrators for further action, such as contacting police or getting mental health professionals involved.

“There have been multiple instances when we have intervened to help students threatening to harm themselves.” Thorossian says. “In fact, not only are we able to respond quickly and effectively to those in distress, our response has opened lines of honest dialogue and communication with families and trusted faculty members.”

Prior to launching the service, some students and teachers expressed privacy concerns—they asked, for example, who would see the post flagged by the monitoring service. District leaders explained that anyone on social media could see the public posts that would be monitored, Thorossian says.

The district also discussed the plan with PTA leaders while high school principals met with student groups. “The service will enable us to better meet the social and emotional needs of our students when they choose to post publicly asking for help,” Thorossian says.

Split-second choices

At Columbia Public Schools in Missouri, the monitoring service culls through more than 1,000 social media alerts a day.

The service tracks all activity made within a certain distance of the district’s school buildings. It flags posts that contain keywords, such as the names of schools and people, team mascots, disciplinary terms, and words like “police” and “bullying,” says Community Relations Director Michelle Baumstark, who is responsible for sifting through the reports.

While many posts turn out to be harmless, the three-year-old monitoring program—provided by a company called Meltwater Buzz—has alerted the district to threats, imminent fights and intended suicides.

“We have 18,000 students—we’re not going to catch everything,” she says. “But we do hope we’re helping them think about the long-term things that can happen as a result of making a split-second choice to write or post online.”

Another emerging problem that monitoring has detected is when students post naked photos of themselves. Among the consequences of such activity are potential child pornography charges. The district also has learned that students are shifting away from Facebook and Twitter to sites like Instagram, Snapchat and Yik Yak, Baumstark says.

The monitoring at Columbia schools also has encouraged students to report suspicious social media behavior that takes place outside the area tracked by the service. Recently, a student told a school resource officer about an alleged shooting threat made on Yik Yak, which is supposed to be restricted to college-age students.

Yik Yak allows anonymous users to share posts with everyone in a mile-and-a-half radius. The report led to lockdowns at four schools while the threat was investigated. Police identified a student as the suspect but haven’t collected enough evidence to file criminal charges, Baumstark says.

The district also convinced Yik Yak to disable its service around district buildings, something another 100,000 schools have done, she adds.

“When you look at what social media is, it’s people in your community talking about something that impacts schools, and that may be good, bad or otherwise,” she says. “It’s not about changing freedom of speech and it’s not about hindering somebody’s ability to make a comment or have an opinion—it’s helping us keep track of safety issues that may be occurring.”

We’re not Big Brother

Students at Smoky Mountain High School in the mountains of western North Carolina have been behaving more appropriately on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram since a pilot monitoring program began last fall, says Superintendent Michael L. Murray. It’s been so successful that the 3,600-student district, Jackson County Public Schools, plans to expand the program next year to an alternative high school and its two early-college high schools.

“It was controversial for some community members, activists and some other people who felt I might be pushing the envelope toward Big Brother by spying,” says Murray, whose daughter attends Smoky Mountain High School.

The program Murray uses, by a company called Social Sentinel, allows him to draw a virtual boundary, or “geofence,” around the high school and monitor all traffic that takes place within those boundaries. While no threats regarding guns or drugs have been detected, the principal has investigated several instances of cyberbullying and harassment. Students involved in such incidents received counseling.

Before the monitoring started, Murray and the high school principal met with parents and students to tell them how the program would work.

“We are not looking at emails, we’re not looking at text messages—we’re looking at social media where students have checked off that it’s public information,” he says. “I can look at it and so can any pedophile—so why wouldn’t parents want the superintendent to also look at it?”

Learning management systems also have components that mimic social media, allowing students to participate in discussion threads and post photos within the platforms. Gaggle is one example of an LMS that monitors its own platform for inappropriate content and keywords that may indicate threats.

Gaggle also integrates students’ Google and Microsoft Exchange email accounts, and the platform’s monitoring capability is extended when students use these email addresses to sign up for accounts on Facebook, Instagram or other social networks.

The filters can flag inappropriate or threatening content contained in the email alerts these social networks send to notify users when they have been mentioned or tagged in posts. When concerning content is spotted, Gaggle’s monitoring team notifies a school district contact.

Evolution of security

Superintendent Wilcox, who uses the Social Sentinel in Washington County schools, says he hasn’t had to deal with threats of violence, but the service did flag suicidal comments that a student with a history of problems made. Administrators immediately contacted the principal, who, along with guidance counselors, pulled the student from class and contacted the guardian. Then it was referred to medical providers.

“You look at the natural evolution of school security—we have SROs, door-locking systems and camera systems,” adds Wilcox, whose district has 22,000 students and 46 schools. “I don’t see this as something that’s outside the norm of what people expect us to do for safety and security of our kids.”