Social Sentinel will troll area social media traffic searching for key words and phrases that could indicate a possible threat to school safety.
Can an algorithm distinguish the difference in intent between a Facebook post that says, “I really didn’t practice. I’m afraid I’m gonna bomb my band solo performance,” and another that says, “I hate these band kids. I’m going to bomb their performance”? And should the district use such an algorithm to troll through local social media traffic for potential school threats?
The Flagler County School Board voted unanimously April 17 to pay a company called Social Sentinel $18,500 per year for three years to troll public social media posts and search for violent threats or threats of suicide and help make those kinds of calls. The software, according to Social Sentinel, is continually being refined to more accurately detect actual threats.
Unlike previous district monitoring measures, this one won’t be restricted to students’ school-issued laptops or to internet traffic on the district’s servers. So it won’t affect only students or school staff: It could target anyone who’s set their social media location to “Flagler County” or “Palm Coast” or who’s posted references to local schools.
Potential threats that trigger the algorithm by matching a “harm library” and that appear to occur within the software’s “footprint” — area of concern — would be forwarded to district staff for review.
“What we’re able to do is, if a threat exists and we tie into that ... we can associate that with, to the best of our knowledge, our client,” said Heather Harer, who represented Social Sentinel before the School Board at its meeting April 17. “This is all publicly accessible data. … And again, we’re only looking at high-level threats.” The company’s brochure states that it can also be used to disrupt drug distribution or gang activity.
Earl Johnson, the district’s director of leadership development, spoke briefly at the meeting in favor of the software, saying it would add a new layer of security for the district.
He said he’d spoken to staff in another county that had contracted with Social Sentinel because it had a high rate of student suicide. Since implementation, it had gotten five “positive hits” from the program, he said: four threats of suicide, and one middle school student who’d posted about smoking pot on campus. The students threatening suicide got intervention and were still attending school in that district when Johnson talked to staff there, he said.
By the time the School Board meeting was held, a column by FlaglerLive.com’s Pierre Tristam opposing the program as well-intentioned but unwarranted snooping had gotten about two dozen comments, largely from people calling the program an overreach or a waste of money.
School Board members — with the exception of the two student School Board members, who can listen in and offer comments, but not a vote — spoke largely in favor of the program, asking only a few clarifying questions.
Board member Janet McDonald said she’d heard that law enforcement already used similar tools.
“I think the bigger misstep would be to look away from this vital resource of information that can be gathered without harm to the community,” she said. “I would hate to have any of the people who are worried about their privacy be the next victim.”
Board member Andy Dance said he thought that the key to the issue was that everything Social Sentinel would be assessing would be in the public domain.
Board member Trevor Tucker asked a few questions about Social Sentinel’s financial health, and board member Maria Barbosa said she supports the program because the students are the “most precious gift God gave to us.”
Conklin said she was sure everyone on the board had, at some point, gotten a screenshot of some social media threat and forwarded it to district staff.
And, she said, “We’re not going to be crashing parties or anything like that. Nothing like that.”
Student School Board member questions
Two student School Board members, Matanzas High School’s Margaret Ann O’Mahoney and FPC’s Jessica Paige Middleton, asked several questions.
Middleton asked Harer how the company decided what information to target. Harer replied that the company uses “a few different components,” including geo-fences and “self-identifiers,” like when people post their location or school affiliation.
O’Mahoney asked what action the district would take when threats are received.
Johnson said that would depend on the threat: In some cases, the district would refer the issue to mental health counselors, in others, to law enforcement.
Mahoney asked if the district had spoken about the Social Sentinel proposal with students and the community.
Johnson said that, for security reasons, the district didn’t take the issue before the public. It was discussed at a workshop April 3, but the district did not go out to bid on the contract. It planned to met in executive session April 17 before the board meeting to discuss the program without the public in attendance, but then pulled Social Sentinel off the agenda for the closed-door meeting.
Conklin added later, “A lot of districts that adopt this never speak about it publicly. Because it kind of defeats the purpose.”
Superintendent James Tager thanked O’Mahoney and Middleton for speaking up.
“It’s like Dr. (Maria) Barbosa said: You are our most cherished persons in this district, our students are, so we need to protect you, and the landscape has changed,” he said. “So we could build bigger walls, bigger fences, we can harden our schools. It doesn’t make our buildings more attractive. We’re an innovative district, and as a former principal, the one thing that always sticks with me is that I’ve had students that have committed suicide, and we have a high suicide rate here. There is not a price that you can tell me on one student’s life. So to me, this is something to look towards, and it is an innovative possibility.”