Social media monitoring ushers in a new era in school security and safety

Dec. 7, 2015
Social media monitoring is delivered through a variety of means and they have vastly different levels of intrusion

One of the realities of our times is that schools have become a focus of threats. Nightly news stories cover everything from the horrors of mass shootings to cyber bullying, harassment and children driven to suicide with appalling frequency. School administrators see a different picture.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second highest cause of death among children between the ages of 12-18 and there are 5,400 attempted suicides by children between the 7th and 12th grades everyday. That is what they see.

 The cries for help are there, even if the signs of risk are often masked by what adults consider those “troubled teenage years.” A child may say they’re better off dead, or they “hate their life,” etc. The big difference in today’s electronic world isn’t what at risk children may say – but where they say it.  For many school districts the answer is social media monitoring.

 There is no shortage of opinion on monitoring and, of course, those opinions are being aired online. Some point to the presumption of privacy while others equate online activity with letters delivered by the U.S. Postal Service – where privacy is assured. None of that is true. Messages, posts and photos placed on public social media pages are indeed public.  Pressing “enter” and posting on Facebook or tweeting is akin to standing on one end of the block and screaming to someone standing at the other. Everyone standing in between can hear you. Perhaps the most important point to emerge was voiced by an attorney who noted that the technology is being implemented before policies are established to govern it.

 No Monoliths

Social media monitoring is delivered through a variety of means and they have vastly different levels of intrusion and impacts. In some cases, schools send out notices to parents that student logon identities and passwords will be required in order to track a student’s activity on Facebook, Twitter and other media, scanning their home pages, posts and messages. Some services are data aggregators and capture and keep records of all communications. Aggregators have the ability and, often do in the case of school districts, to focus on small local geographic areas.  Some interface with law enforcement by design, while others provide information only to the schools.

 Some of the current service providers offer real-time social media monitoring, taking a less intrusive approach to monitoring with the creation of a “geofence” to monitor data from selected social media sources within a 5-10 mile radius surrounding a school. No personal data is gathered and filters use key words to scan data and to flag messages and posts that may indicate trouble or issues.  From ongoing monitoring, potential watch lists or other alerts can be generated.

 Geolocation creates a snapshot of what’s happening within the targeted area.  School administrators control the search terms that might relate to guns, drugs, bullying and harassment, as well as threats inside or outside of the school community. Administrators can receive real-time email and text alerts shortly after messages are posted. With this information, schools can be proactive.   

 Security concerns are a high priority, but the technology can also monitor sentiment of a community, measuring its opinions, attitudes and concerns.  With this information, administrators can better serve and communicate with members of the community. Issues that can be monitored can range from the passage of a school bond, the adoption of the core curriculum, to how parents feel about budgets, afterschool programs, food offerings, class trips, sports programs, the prom, and more.

 Unknown Territory

While school administrators take steps to protect their students, state legislatures are looking at the issue with a different eye. Education comes under the jurisdiction of the 50 states. How they craft individual policies to protect the rights of schools and students while regulating a global technology is presenting challenges. In the coming months and years this topic will be debated in many state capitols and possibly by the federal government.

 Things We Know

With each incidence of school violence, police hold press conferences and often say their investigations will focus on social media. The damage has been done and the lesson of the day is look first. If school shootings and other violence have become the new normal, then the mission is clear – stop it from being the norm. Social media monitoring can be part of the solution and it is already making and impact.

 Threats of violence are growing. According to National School Safety and Security Services, threats increased 158 percent in the first half of 2014 over the previous year and almost 40 percent of them were made via social media. In all, 812 threats were tracked from August 1 through December 31, 2014. There’s no immunity; threats were identified in 46 states.

 Interdiction works. In Dekalb County Georgia, schools scan social media sites filtering for words like “guns” and “explosives.” At the University of Georgia a student was arrested for threatening to show up with an AK-47. Georgia has good reason to worry: there have been nine school shootings since January 2013.

 Social media is a permanent fixture of life and for children who have grown up entirely in the digital world. They live their lives online and share many of their thoughts, concerns, struggles and troubles. Those impacted by loneliness, depression, taunts from bullies or troubled by sociopathic thoughts are posting online.  All too often news broadcasts report that troubled youth or adult members of communities who pose a threat take to social media before they acted.   

 As monitoring technology is deployed and schools find their way through the maze of issues, they will determine what technology and approaches best suit their needs and the needs of students, parents and communities at large. The fact is, we live in a new digital reality. Monitoring of social media is now in its infancy.  Security and education sector professionals must strike a balance and determine how monitoring will be implemented and used to ensure the safety of students, staff and communities.

 About the Author:

Mike Richez is the Executive VP Business Development of OSC World. Mr. Richez is an expert in social media monitoring and through his company offers Digital Fly, one of the nation’s first and most effective school district social media monitoring services. Mr. Richez is a former school district technology director and worked as director of business development for a leading New York school security company. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information about Mr. Richez and OSC World please visit