This Triangle school system is scanning students' social media for danger signs

The Orange County Schools in North Carolina is monitoring students' social media use for warning signs of possible school shootings, suicide and other dangers.
The Orange County Schools in North Carolina is monitoring students' social media use for warning signs of possible school shootings, suicide and other dangers. AP

After school shootings around the nation where officials missed warning signs, Orange County Schools has hired a firm to scan students' social media posts for danger signals.

The district is paying a little over $10,000 a year to the Vermont-based Social Sentinel firm to use software to search for keywords pointing to threats of violence, suicide and other self-harm, and bullying 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The software searches Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Meetup, Periscope and other public sites. It does not look at private sites.

When it flags a word or phrase, it notifies Sherita Cobb, the school system's director of Student Support Services, to evaluate whether it is a true threat or a false alarm. Cobb told the school board Monday night she is working to have at least one Orange County sheriff’s deputy alerted as well.

Social Sentinel claims to search for thousands of keywords, including "kill,” “die” and “bomb."

Cobb said when she gets an alarm, she looks at posts before and after the post in question to help decide whether it is a threat.

Superintendent Todd Wirt said Orange County is one of two school districts in the state using Social Sentinel.

Privacy concerns

Numerous firms offer to scan social media, but Social Sentinel is unique in focusing on schools.

That concerns some who question whether the company's work invades students' privacy.

“I think anytime we’re expanding school officials’ ability to monitor student activity outside of school I think that should give students and parents pause,” said Mike Meno, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

Meno said the Orange County Schools’ including the Sheriff’s Office concerns him as well. “North Carolina has some real ongoing problems with the school-to-prison pipleline, referring students from schools to the legal system," he said. "We know from data that those tools are often used disproportionately against students of color, increasing the school-to-prison pipeline.”

But the school board's attorney, Jonathan Bloomberg, supports the move and calls it brave.

“We’re in a new frontier,” he said, “but I certainly support the ‘rather know it and deal with it’ approach than sort of stick your head in the sand.”

Some schools and districts would rather reduce their potential liability by saying, “what I don’t know can’t hurt me, and .... well, if I didn’t know it then you can’t put it on me,'" Bloomberg said. "But I think it is brave to open your eyes and say, ‘We want to know.'"

Wirt said he and Cobb began discussing Social Sentinel in the winter and decided to enroll. Cobb said no threats have been detected so far.

“It’s worth the cost,” Wirt said, “We had done enough research of other systems, a lot of universities that have used this for quite some time. It’s worth the cost to us if it helps us prohibit some sort of event at one of our schools, intervene early for a student who is struggling and is sharing some of those thoughts and behaviors online. If we save one kid in one incident in the next five years the cost is for us is worth it.”

School board Chair Steve Halkiotis agreed.

“I just think it’s an amazing place in history and time that we find ourselves in, where heretofore how people felt hatred in their hearts stayed in their hearts, and now they can share it with the entire world and make everybody uneasy," Halkiotis said. “But it’s nice to be able to know what’s going on out there because there’s a significant number of troubled people out there doing some troubling things.”

Other school districts interested

Meanwhile, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) and Durham Public Schools (DPS) are considering the use of a firm such as Social Sentinel to monitor students' social media accounts.

'We've talked about these kinds of services but we haven't purchased any at this point," said Jeff Nash, spokesman for CHCCS. "We haven't ruled it out, I'm just saying we haven't purchased this kind of service so far."

Over the past two or three years, Nash said vendors such as Social Sentinel and Durham-based ArchiveSocial have begun to show up at educational conferences to market their services.

"A lot of my colleagues are taking note, and they're kind of looking at these services at this point," Nash said.

DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth said district leaders in Durham have begun talking about using such a service.

"We've had some initial conversations," Sudderth said. "We're evaluating the cost effectiveness and the effectiveness of those kinds of programs.

He said whether such monitoring of students' social media violates their privacy is also part of the conversation.

"Those services track information that is released on the public internet, so we are not only evaluating the cost effectiveness and effectiveness of such services, but also issues related to student privacy," Sudderth said.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

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