JEFFERSON-Ashe County Schools is considering the possibility of deploying a new social media safety net that could help it track down online threats before they become reality.
That comes from the school district’s Director of Technology Amy Walker, who presented the Ashe County Board of Education with an outline of Social Sentinel, a company that provide social media monitoring services.
The program could help Ashe County Schools’ administrators identify online chatter from dangerous individuals, and those leads could be used to head off problems before they start.
But the way the tool is designed could also pose privacy concerns for social media users who aren’t even on school property.
The growing list of websites and applications that help users create and share their own content – think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – is increasingly problematic for the school system, Walker said.
The ability to share information at light speed, combined with users’ perceived level of anonymity online, means students might be more likely to digitally bully another student than they would in the real world.
“When we talk about things like cyberbullying or “sexting” – the digital world has enabled kids to do that,” Walker said. “And the biggest bullies we have are girls. They can hide behind their cellphone and they don’t have to be confrontational.”
Ashe County Board of Education member Dr. Lee Beckworth said he’s heard concerns from parents about applications like Snapchat, which allows students to send messages that disappear seconds later. Part of the problem, according to Beckworth, is that students can use the service to send images or messages they might not otherwise send.
“They think all this stuff disappears but in the digital world nothing ever goes away,” Walker said. “Snapchat owns all that stuff they send and it could reappear at anytime. It’s surprising how little they realize…they don’t consider it bullying or wrong, and they don’t think about sending their pictures to their boyfriends as being illegal.”
Cyberbullying, suicide attempts and threats
Walker told board members Social Sentinel, a relatively recent innovation, has been installed in at least six schools across the state, including one in Jackson County.
The service is designed to help with things like cyberbullying, identifying students who may be likely to harm themselves and threats to teachers or campuses, according to Walker.
“It scans social media looking for keywords like suicide, bomb, kill or phrases put together,” Walker said. “There are thousands of words that can trigger an alert.”
If the program finds a problem message, it will send an email notifying Ashe County Schools’ administrators, principals and school resource officers – or anyone else the district would choose to alert.
And Walker said the “cloud based system” – that essentially means all the costly infrastructure and data systems that support Social Sentinel are handled by the company – would be easy to integrate into all five county schools.
But privacy could be a problem
The system works by setting up a “geofence” – that’s a term that uses the geolocation features built into cellphones and other wireless devices – to monitor public social media posts within a certain geographic area around school properties.
If users are posting public information online from within the geofence, Social Sentinel will be able to do its job. Outside that fence there are no protections.
“So if they’re really beyond the school’s borders, it’s not going to help us find those things,” Walker said.
But Walker also had another concern, that social media users close to one of the district’s schools – in West Jefferson’s Wal-Mart, for instance – would fall within Social Sentinel’s geofence boundary.
“I have concerns about Walmart or Subway or Wendy’s,” Walker said. “We’d be kind of snooping in on areas that aren’t part of the high school’s campus. I’d love to see anything come in and help us control that type of situation, but I do have legal concerns.”
And for social media users that operate under an assumed name, or a user identification that’s not easily traceable, Walker said authorities might have a hard time acting on Social Sentinel’s alerts. She also fretted about the program’s expense, which would cost nearly $10,000 to cover the entire district.
The board took no action on the Social Sentinel proposal, but Beckworth said the district should at least consider it.
“You don’t want to be in one of these situations where you realize after the fact that we might have been able to stop something before it happened,” Beckworth said.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr