School Safety & Privacy Under Digital Surveillance Systems

Are students safer in school districts that watch their every move on social media? Some schools have started using digital surveillance systems to monitor students’ social media posts. This has prompted privacy advocates to question administrators about the responsible use of social media monitoring tools.

As a growing number of districts consider digital surveillance, skeptics also raise concerns that misinterpreted data could result in too many false positives. Consider the phrase “shooting drills” in a Facebook post. Digital surveillance software could flag this post because it contains a gun-related term – “shooting.” But the post could just as easily refer to activity at an upcoming basketball camp.

Despite these concerns, education officials face tremendous pressure to increase school safety, and digital surveillance systems can serve as an effective security tool.

How? Teens spend countless hours on social media. According to The Educator’s School Safety Network, 40 percent of people who hurt themselves or others report their intent on social media. The Parkland, Florida, shooter clearly signaled his intent with a series of social media posts and online search activity. Tragically, law enforcement officials found that information after the attack.

Digital surveillance software can help flag signs of violent or concerning intent before they result in tragedy, whether it’s related to gun violence, bullying or self-harm. Among the many service providers, Geo Listening and Social Sentinel tailor their products specifically to school districts, and their customer lists are growing.

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More Schools Investing in Digital Surveillance Systems

study by The Brennan Center for Justice showed the number of school districts purchasing social media monitoring software grew more than tenfold from 2013 to 2018 – from 6 districts to 63. But these numbers, which reflect self-reported procurement, don’t tell the full story.

Social Sentinel claims more than 3,500 schools across the country use its social media monitoring technology. One of its customers, the 12,300-student Brazosport Independent School District in Texas, spends $18,500 per year for the company to monitor public Facebook, Twitter and other social media posts from users, including adults, in the surrounding area.

Using complex search algorithms, the software scans for specific keywords and topics, flags potentially threatening messages and sends automated alerts to the superintendent, chief of police and other school administrators. The school received 140 alerts during the first eight months of operation.

The Grand Rapids Public School District in Michigan, with 17,000 students, uses a similar monitoring service by Gaggle. The software searches not only social media platforms, but emails and class assignments students generate on school-issued devices. Human employees then review the most serious alerts to decide whether or not to notify school officials.

Over a six-month period, Gaggle flagged nearly 3,000 incidents in the Grand Rapids district. That whittled down to 49 potentially imminent threats. One instance prompted local law enforcement to take action, arresting a 15-year-old student who made terrorist threats on Snapchat.

Issues with Social Media Monitoring Systems

Despite the growing popularity of social media monitoring, success rates with digital surveillance systems are unclear, and they raise a number of questions related to accuracy, privacy, and ethics.

Misinterpretation can go well beyond phrases like “shooting drills.” Teens typically use slang and pop culture references in their posts. Many software algorithms may not accurately interpret the meaning of these phrases – even human readers may not understand the meaning or context. Schools can end up overwhelmed by tons of flagged, misunderstood content that poses no threat.

Nowhere is the privacy issue more in the spotlight than in Florida. Following the Parkland tragedy, the state legislature mandated a comprehensive database to support active shooter prevention. Available to law enforcement, the database would combine residents’ criminal justice, social services, mental health and educational records with their social media data.

The plan has hit a number of roadblocks as critics express their concerns about the privacy rights of citizens and the legality of sharing highly sensitive information with school districts and law enforcement. The scope will likely narrow as opponents fear far-reaching negative implications in the name of school safety.

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