(TNS) — The Lake County School District's safety team is ready to activate a new security system that scans millions of social media postings for potential threats at public schools, if the School Board votes Monday night to approve it.
The proposed Social Sentinel software searches public posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media for suspicious words that could signal a potential incident in any county public school. The program uses a proprietary algorithm that searches for key phrases, say "kill" or "bomb," which would trigger an immediate alert to the school system's safety office. Schools officials can choose to investigate — or act swiftly to coordinate with local police if needed.
"I was on the lookout for this kind of service," said Jimmer Roy, the district's safety and security specialist. "They're one of the only products out there that do what they do."
The software is the latest school safety tool developed by the Burlington, Vermont, based company behind Campus Sentinel, a similar social media threat tracking system used by colleges and universities nationwide and designed by the former police chiefs at the University of Vermont and Princeton University.
Roy said he is working with the company on a preliminary basis, and is testing the system with key words and phrases unique to Lake County, such as "LHS" for Leesburg High School and "THS" for Tavares High School. The key phrases added by the schools range from initials to phrases, providing a net to catch threats from anyone, anywhere.
"We aren't concerned with location," Roy said. He explained that some previous incidents were caused by people outside of the area, but who still sometimes posted to social media.
If the Social Sentinel service catches a potential threat, it can forward the entire message alongside information about the poster. This allows the safety and security office to quickly identify the relevant parties, such as the person making the threat and the places or people who are potentially threatened. If necessary, they could contact police as well.
The office can also determine if an alert is a threat or something benign that just happened to trigger the algorithm.
Roy said he was quite confident in the service and the process they had set up for it. Prior to proposing the service to the School Board, he spent time speaking with his peers at other Central Florida school districts already using the service, including Seminole and Flagler counties. They only had to positive things to say about Social Sentinel, he said.
The district's operations budget will be used to pay for the service, which will cost $70,000 per year for three years.
If the contract with the company is approved by the School Board at Monday night's meeting, the school district will have access to Social Sentinel immediately.
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