Schools use new software to monitor students’ social media posts

August 7, 2014

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Victor Skinner Victor Skinner

Victor is a communications specialist for EAG and joined in 2009. Previously, he was a newspaper journalist.
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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Md. – Officials in western Maryland’s Washington County schools will be tracking students’ social media activity while at school using new software that scans for keywords like “kill” or “bomb.”     
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The district is using software called Social Sentinel that employs “geofencing” protocol to determine when students are on school grounds and scans their Twitter, Facebook and other social media posts for evidence of violent threats, harassment, drug or alcohol use, or similarly dangerous language, WJLA television station reports.

District officials are assuring the public that student privacy won’t be violated because the “geofencing” protocol limits tracking to when students are at school, a public place.

“School officials said the goal is to protect student safety. Examples of such posts that will be tracked include those that feature keywords like ‘kill,’ ‘bomb,’ and others,” the news station reports. “School officials said they will also be consulting with parents and members of student government for feedback on what additional keywords should be added to the watch-list.”

Once the software nabs posts with words administrators don’t like, someone – the news station didn’t report who – will read the posts closer to determine if there’s anything fishy going on. Depending on the context of a threatening post, it will either be forwarded to police or school officials, according to WJLA.

The Washington County district is only one of four in the nation employing the student snooping software, which runs $20,000 per year. District superintendent Clayton Wilcox told the Herald-Mail it will be in place for the district’s middle and high schools when students return from summer break in two weeks.

“The software will search sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, Meetup, Tumblr, Vimeo, and Google Plus, with other sites expected to be added, according to a presentation Tuesday to the Washington County Board of Education,” the Herald-Mail reports.

While the program would seem to raise objections from students, parents or faculty, no serious objections were cited in media reports.

The Washington County Teachers Association President Denise Fry did, however, raise mild concerns about the potential perception that “’Big Brother is watching,’ and whether the software might be used for other purposes,” according to the Herald-Mail.

And while Wilcox touted the system’s ability to track social media posts precisely within school bounds, he acknowledged that the geofencing feature can be expanded, and it seems as though school officials are already peaking into Pandora ’s Box.

During the meeting, (Wilcox) did mention that one day the school system might want to expand it, if officials hear about gang activity or a fight just off campus,” the Herald-Mail reports.

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