Local school districts hire Vermont firm to scan social networks for threats

Public schools in Montgomery and Warren counties have begun using a scanning tool to watch one billion social media posts and blog streams for “potential threats in the areas of security, public safety, harm, wellness or acts of violence,” according to a contract establishing the relationship in Warren County.

The service is being provided by Social Sentinel, a Vermont-based software company, through contracts with the county's educational service centers.

“The company uses its proprietary advanced technology to run the public posts through its extensive library of harm terms, which are continually evolving to adapt to changes in language. Alerts are identified when posts contain terms that signal the potential of harm or violence in association to our clients,” communications consultant Alison Miley said in response to questions to the Burlington, Vt., company.

The contract with Warren County was approved March 28.

In Warren County, every public district except the Mason City Schools is using Social Sentinel, namely the Carlisle, Franklin, Kings, Lebanon, Little Miami, Springboro and Wayne districts.

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“It’s just another extra security blanket,” said Scott Marshall, communications coordinator for the Springboro Community City Schools, in a phone interview.

Similarly, Social Sentinel is contracted with the Montgomery County ESC for a year “for all of its member school districts”, according to Crystal Davis of the Ohio School Boards Association.

Kettering City Schools participated in an informational webinar about Social Sentinel on Monday, April 16. “We will be a part of a consortium of school districts who will be contracting, via the Montgomery County Educational Service Center, with Social Sentinel to use their services,” Kari Basson, coordinator, Community Relations and Auxiliary Services for Kettering schools, said in an email.

While not part of the Warren County arrangement, Mason City Schools has “been investigating it and may use it in future,” district public information officer Tracey Carson said in an email.

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In Warren County, the county’s public school superintendents first broached the subject “a few days after the Parkland, Fla. shooting,” Warren County Educational Service Center Superintendent Tom Isaacs said in a series of emails. “I offered to serve as a central point of contact.”

“After learning more and that 100 percent of the districts had an interest,” Isaacs said he proposed the ESC split the cost with the local districts. “I subsequently learned that all districts in Butler and Montgomery Counties were also looking at this.”

Social Sentinel was founded in 2014 by Gary Margolis who has 20 years of experience in law enforcement and public

safety and over a decade in higher education security.

The company declined to identify other area clients or provide the number in Ohio or Southwest Ohio.

“Unless our clients are interested in speaking to the media we, cannot share who is and is not a client,” Miley said via email.

Not all area school districts are Social Sentinel customers.

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“We do not use this system,” Beavercreek City Schools Superintendent Paul Otten said in a series of emails. “We do not use any service but our kids in grades 9-12 are provided with a Chrome Book and we have a filter which flags concerning/disturbing key words and sends alerts to our administration to investigate. These alerts range from search words like “despair”, “Suicide”, “Death”, etc. and we address with parents promptly.”

In a February announcement on the Social Sentinel service and other new school-safety steps, Springboro schools told parents “this program helps our District Crisis Teams and School Resource Officers better protect our community by alerting Springboro Schools to threats shared publicly on social media,” the district said.

“It’s not targeting students or parents,” Marshall said. In addition to the words indicating potential threats, the scans pick up references to the district and community.

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Marshall said district officials underwent training and receive daily emails from Social Sentinel on what the contract describes as the company’s “search, library algorithms, roles and permissions tool” turn up in their scans.

Texts alert local educators of any potential threat, Marshall said. “If there is something they think could be an issue, the administrators in our group will get a text message immediately.”

Isaacs said he learned of Social Sentinel after meeting on school safety with school officials.

During this time, law enforcement and education officials and students met in anticipation of the national walkouts and in the midst of a continuing series of school threat cases in districts and churches around Warren County.

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“There were so many threats being made after Parkland that I and my board felt very compelled to do our part in promoting school safety,” Isaacs added.

The costs are expected to hover around $30,000, according to the Warren County contract.

The rates are based on $1.20 per student enrolled, with the costs to be split between the districts and ESC.

Warren County was to enroll at least 25,000 students. In the contract, local total enrollment of participating districts was listed as 27,365.

The contract also calls for the ESC to inform other school districts of Social Sentinel services “and provides Social Sentinel with certain marketing and sales opportunities.”

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The districts are provided “promotional materials, assistance for marketing, communication efforts for districts and “other interested parties” and to cooperate on communications.

Social Sentinel is to be invited to school safety events, provided information on those attending and allowed to market to those in attendance “at such events at reasonable times.”

The contract also states the “preferential rate” will be up for renegotiation next spring.

Lebanon Superintendent Todd Yohey said, “”We have been very impressed with the performance of Social Sentinel. While we have received several notifications of public posts containing threatening words, none have been threats against the school or any individuals.”

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