• Friday, September 21, 2018
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New York Times| Top News

Promising safety, companies put eyes on students’ social media posts

  • BY NEW YORK TIMES

    Asueel Yousefi, who was expelled from high school for Twitter posts made on the last day of his junior year, in Birmingham, Ala., last month. Haunted by mass killings, schools are hiring Twitter and Facebook monitors to keep a constant watch on students. Yousefi believes his posts were brought to the school’s attention by one such company seeking clients.

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Hours after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, companies that market their services to schools began to speak up. “Governor, take pride that a Vermont-based company is helping schools identify the violence before it happens,” one company wrote on Twitter to Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont.

The chief executive of another company appeared on the news to boast of a “home run”: Its algorithms, he said, had helped prevent two student suicides.

To an anguished question that often follows school shootings — Why didn’t anyone spot the warning signs? — these companies have answered with a business model: 24/7 monitoring of student activity on social media.

Often without advance warning to students and parents, the companies flag posts like those of Auseel Yousefi, who was expelled in 2013 from his high school in Huntsville, Alabama, for Twitter posts made on the last day of his junior year. “A kid has a right to be who they want outside of school,” he said later.

More than 100 public school districts and universities, faced with the prospect that the next attacker may be among their own students, have hired social media monitoring companies over the past five years, according to a review of school spending records. And each successive tragedy brings more customers: In the weeks after the Parkland attack, dozens of schools entered into such contracts, even though there is little evidence that the programs work as promised.

The customers have included districts reeling in the aftermath of shootings, like the Newtown Public Schools in Connecticut; some of the nation’s largest urban school systems, like Los Angeles and Chicago; and prominent universities like Michigan State and Florida State. The monitoring is one of a host of products and services, including active shooter insurance and facial recognition technology, that are being marketed to schools amid questions about their value.

“If it helps save one life, it’s worth every dollar spent on it,” said Chris Frydrych, the chief executive of Geo Listening, a California company whose website says, “Don’t miss out on the opportunity to listen.”

In many cases the monitoring contracts have not worked out as planned. There is little evidence the companies have helped ferret out brewing threats of violence, bullying or self-harm, according to a review of contracts, marketing materials and emails obtained through public records requests.

But in hiring them, schools expand the traditional boundaries of their responsibility, and perhaps, experts say, their liability. And, the documents show, they vacuum up hundreds of harmless posts, raising questions about student privacy.

The monitoring programs have often been initiated without notifying students, parents or local school boards. Because of their relatively low cost — contracts typically range from a few thousand dollars to $40,000 per year — the deals can get buried in school board agendas.

In their advertising, the companies promise much, but when contacted, they declined to give details on specific incidents, citing nondisclosure agreements and student privacy laws. Many schools also declined to give details of instances in which they used the companies’ information.

Interviews and marketing materials help paint a picture of the companies’ basic approach. Some apply and pay for access to social media companies’ public data, such as Twitter’s so-called data fire hose, which gives users the ability to access and analyze public tweets in bulk.

Rather than asking schools for a list of students and social media handles, the companies typically employ a method called “geofencing” to sweep up posts within a given geographic area and use keywords to narrow the pool. Because only a small fraction of social media users share their locations, the companies use additional clues, like a user’s hometown, to determine whose content is worth flagging.

School officials are alerted to flagged posts in real time or in batches at the end of each day. Burlington High School in Massachusetts typically receives two to six alerts per day from Social Sentinel, the company based in Vermont, according to a list of alerts from 2017. Many consisted of normal teenage banter.

“Ok so all day I’ve wanted my bio grade up online and now that it’s up I’ve decided I want to die,” one Twitter post said. “Hangnails make me want to die,” said another.

By its count, Social Sentinel has contracts in more than 30 states.

“We’re a carbon monoxide detector,” said Gary Margolis, the company’s chief executive and a former campus police chief. “If a student is posting about not liking their teacher, that’s not what we pay attention to. If a student is posting about shooting their teacher, we would hope we’d be able to find something like that.”

Mark Pompano, the security director for the school district that includes Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, has vetted hundreds of school safety products since the mass shooting there. In 2015, impressed by Social Sentinel’s pitch, he gave the company a try for a few months, but it never caught anything serious, he said.

“I cannot recall a single incident that we used Social Sentinel to pursue some type of security threat or anything like that,” Pompano said. “If something doesn’t work, we’re not going to stick with it.”

Today, Pompano said, the district relies mostly on tips from students, a system that works well if there is an atmosphere of trust. “It goes back to human intelligence, where kids have at least one trusted adult,” he said, “knowing what they’re telling them is confidential.”

In a few cases, school administrators said, monitoring services have helped them identify students who appeared to be at risk of harming themselves. More rare were instances in which an imminent threat to others was thwarted.

In 2015, as the first anniversary of a shooting at Florida State approached, a post expressing sympathy for the gunman and an intent to visit the campus was intercepted by Social Sentinel, the campus police chief said. The man was stopped on campus and warned to stay away. When he returned, he was arrested.

Patrick Larkin, an assistant superintendent in Burlington, Massachusetts, said he receives alerts on his phone in real time from Social Sentinel. “Nineteen out of 20” come from people who are not even his students, he said earlier this year.

Real threats, administrators said, are more often flagged by vigilant users, as was the case with the Parkland gunman, whose troubling comments on YouTube were reported to the FBI.

Margolis said it is hard to demonstrate that harm has been averted. “How do you measure the absence of something?” he said, adding that Social Sentinel’s algorithms have improved in recent months.

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