Gillette schools study social media monitoring

By Kathy Brown

Gillette News Record

Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — More than 400 school districts in the nation are monitoring social media messages for possible threats from students, residents and parents through a service called Social Sentinels.

It’s the most popular platform offering the service.

Campbell County School District trustees heard about the platform in their pre-meeting Tuesday and asked district officials to continue to look into monitoring social media here, including privacy concerns.

While the district has some capability of monitoring social media, it hasn’t done so. Trustees and school officials indicated the district isn’t interested in doing so at this point, either.

School board member Ken Clouston had suggested the topic for discussion earlier this school year and that brought Kip Farnum, director of the district’s student support services, to the meeting.

He spoke about many of the monitoring programs available, based on his own research and after attending a recent digital threat workshop. But he’s probably only touched the tip of the iceberg, he said.

“It’s huge,” he said. “It’s something we have to go forward on. Everything is in the developmental stage. ... Social media is just expanding exponentially.”

Monitoring for threats

The monitoring programs are allowing districts to learn about school-related issues, whether it’s through use of specific keywords, algorithms or filters with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.

It’s available for users of those social media sites that allow public access, but not those who select strict privacy settings.

Farnum said not only the number of kids killed in the U.S. is increasing, but so is the volume of threats, many of which are made on social media.

Of the programs he reviewed, he noted K12Social. It’s an all-in-one platform with real-time tools that track and alert users to district mentions in local news, social media and web-based sources, including personal blogs. That service offers keyword monitoring and identification of politicians or media outlets and also can offer reports on community engagement and the reach of district communications.

“It could zone in on people and I think it could zone in on us if we wanted to,” Farnum said. “It’s kind of scary.”

Social Sentinel

The most popular program used by school districts is Social Sentinel with more than 400 school districts now using it. It has a proprietary filter for more than 1 billion public social media posts per day and a library with 450,000 threats and behavior-related phrases, word combinations, terms and emojis to identify posts with threats involving schools or districts.

“A district our size would probably get four to eight alerts a day and up” that officials would need to react to, Farnum estimated. “It’s really interesting the way it works.”

At the digital threats workshop he attended in Casper, Farnum said officials used a geo-fence — a virtual perimiter for a real-world geographic area — for keywords with “cops” in it. An Instagram post several days earlier popped up in which some adults had trouble opening bottles of champagne and another person warned that the cops might interrupt the party.

“It only assesses those who are public. If they’re private, it won’t assess those,” Farnum said.

He spoke to an Arkansas superintendent of a district with 5,000 students. He said that district receives four to six alerts a day and has a security officer react to those an estimated two to four hours a day.

The program also saved the life of a student who was suicidal.

Privacy concerns

“Another concern with these programs is privacy,” Farnum said. “There’s an awful lot to that privacy issue. I feel we’re kind of being spoon-fed some of this data. I’m not sure what direction you guys want to go and I’m just skimming the surface.”

He added that he isn’t aware of any district in Wyoming using a social media monitoring program.

As it is, the school district has a program that could establish a geo-fence and zero in on keywords. It also could track a location where photos were taken that appear on social media and when they were taken.

“We can do a bit,” said Deputy Superintendent Kirby Eisenhauer. “I think this is new enough we’re not ready to invest in a program yet.”

Social media lure

At the same time, both Eisenhauer and Farnum spoke about how some social media programs establish a competition among students.

Those users receive points and scores on how many posts they send and in a way entice students to not use privacy settings and remain in the public. Some of those stats include a string of 500 days or more, said trustee Lisa Durgin.

“I don’t know if it’s our generations, parent generations, if we are aware of what’s at stake,” Farnum said.

“It’s scary, it really is,” Durgin responded. “I hope we continue to educate (people on this) for the benefit of our kids. I think there’s some naivete out there.

“There’s kids that have 500-day streaks, a Snapchat score. Some kids are in the millions.”

She suggested school officials continue to look at the issues.

“Can you look at how we can do it as a district, if we did it in-house?” Durgin asked. “Then let us look at it later this spring or fall.”