The traditional approach to school safety is to implement security policies and deploy hardware aimed at keeping physical threats at bay, but in today’s schools threats aren’t always physical. Very often they’re digital. Incidents of school violence and cyberbullying are on the rise in K-12 schools across the nation and trouble to come is often evident in the behaviors and actions of students online.
“In the last 10 years, 90 percent of the kids that perpetrated a crime at school or that hurt themselves told others before they did it on social media sites,” says Bruce Canal, former law enforcement officer, safety consultant and now CEO of Social Net Watcher, a provider of social media scanning software.
The statistic Canal quotes comes from a 2004 study by the U.S. Secret Service on preventing school attacks. It’s a frighteningly accurate reminder of just how publicly students live their lives, thinking nothing of a text, tweet or post. Those are simply methods of communication to them much like a journal, except they’re digital and they’re out there for the world to see.
“When you watch the news cycle at night and you hear of a shooting in another town, the reporter seems to miss the real point,” Canal says.
The point Canal refers to is that in the case of school violence, the act is often predicated by something else. It could be a Facebook post that contains a threat, or a YouTube video in which the student discusses feelings of anger or depression. Regardless, a student’s actions online can serve as a window into their psyche and may represent a call for help. This potential of social media to provide school administrators with an opportunity for intervention led Canal to develop his company and it’s product by the same name, Social Net Watcher.
Social Net Watcher is just one of several software products on the market that scans social media sites against a database of proprietary words that pertain to cyberbullying, teen suicide and school violence. Other providers of similar solutions include Social Sentinel and Geo Listening. Each provider’s software works a little differently, but in the case of Social Net Watcher, the software sits on the background of social media sites similar to games like Farmville or Candy Crush. Students must voluntarily subscribe to the service and give permission for the software to access their social media accounts. If a phrase from a post or tweet is detected against the database, an alert is sent to school administrators to make them aware of the communication.
While this type of social media scanning technology holds promise, it’s not without controversy. School administrators and parents have expressed concerns about privacy and students may understandably be apprehensive about allowing such a program to access something like a Facebook account, for example. Canal says his product gets around the privacy issue by requiring students to voluntarily opt in. “Nothing is done covertly,” he says.
This is not the case with every product on the market and it’s important to note that some schools do choose to deploy this type of scanning capability without notifying students. This was the case in Huntsville, Alabama this fall when news broke that the district used a secret program to monitor student activity online. Despite the controversial nature of social media monitoring, Canal says these tools are intended for good.
“This isn’t really about catching kids. This is about preventing cyberbullying,” he says. “It’s about providing advanced intelligence, but it isn’t meant to put kids in jail. It’s giving counselors a chance to intervene with a kid who is troubled. A lot of cyberbullying victims end up being suicide victims.”
The New Stranger Danger
While mobile devices in the classroom are generally a positive thing, there is an inherent risk in students increased exposure to digital social platforms. And it’s not just cyberbullying or violence school leaders need to worry about.
Students may not be allowed to Facebook in class or play online games, but if they own the device they’re using, those applications may still be available during lunch or study hall and there have been cases where students used such platforms to connect with strangers online.This issue is of particular concern to Katie Greer, an Internet safety consultant and former administrative assistant for the Massachusetts State Police and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office.
“Administrators don’t realize that this happens,” Greer says. “They are shocked to find that kids are communicating with strangers in games and on chats.”
Greer became involved with Internet Safety during her time with the Massachusetts State Police and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, after she noticed an increase in cases that involved children and the Internet. As a result Greer helped to develop an Internet Safety program for students in Massachusetts.
“It got a ton of attention from press and from schools all around the country so I eventually went off and started doing this on my own,” she explains.
She now travels the country giving presentations to students of all ages that cover stranger danger as well as cyberbullying. Although the latter is a major concern, Greer feels that students connecting with strangers online is an issue that often flies under the radar.
“There’s this false sense of security that kids have about talking to people online,” she says. “It’s not as imminently threatening as a stranger you might see on the street, but I think it’s important to break that down. In a couple of clicks they can get GPS information, geotags and IP information. Things like that make them just as dangerous.”
So what should schools do? The answer to that question isn’t as clear-cut as we might like.
“I think everybody is looking for a special tool that is going to combat all of these things, but I think education is the best tool,” Greer says. “The biggest thing is awareness and constant conversation around the topic.”
Schools need to take a layered approach to safety, which means implementing a combination of technology and education that promote digital safety. Whether districts opt to bring in a guest speaker or design a digital safety course, it’s important to stress best practices for Internet safety and to address specific dangers. It’s also a good idea to create a culture where students feel comfortable reporting things they might see or turning to a teacher or administrator for help. Greer suggests creating a box where student can drop off an anonymous note to report any incidents or concerns. It’s a simple approach that she has seen work with great success for other schools.
“Students are a lot more likely to report an incident if they aren’t going to get in trouble for it, or if they don’t think they’re going to be chastised by their classmates,” Greer says. “I really like that approach.”