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School Safety Package Includes AI, Social Media Monitoring

With OnGuard, Maryland-based security company Rekor has packaged several AI algorithms and human-conducted services together to detect violent school threats before they occur — online, on campus and at bus stops.

With shootings and violent threats on the rise, school safety is one of those issues everyone acknowledges but which state and local governments, often for political reasons, are hard-pressed to meet with sweeping reforms. But as legislators debate the merits of gun control and security guards, the Maryland-based security company Rekor Systems has proposed to curb violent threats with technology.

This month Rekor announced OnGuard, a package of four surveillance services intended to alert school administrators and local law enforcement about potential threats to student safety before they occur. Available separately but now sold as a comprehensive security package, they include:

  • FIRSTSight, a 24/7 social media monitoring service co-produced by ZeroFox that geofences a school and monitors public posts from athletic websites, team websites or extracurricular club pages, and any public posts from students on Instagram or Facebook. FIRSTSight identifies relevant posts with location data and machine learning, screens them for keywords and suspicious content, then refers flagged posts to former U.S. Secret Service special agents on staff at Rekor for further analysis.
  • Cameras mounted on the “stop” arms of school buses to capture passing violations. They send images back to Rekor’s processors, which compile violation packets electronically and then forward those to the local police department. Officers will then review those, put their badge numbers on ones they agree with, and send approved tickets back to Rekor to be mailed and collected.
  • School visitor monitoring via cameras mounted at the school’s entrances and exits. These read license plates and send an automatic notification to both school administrators and law enforcement if they pick up a blacklisted vehicle, such as from an expelled student or registered pedophile.
  • Protective intelligence and advance warnings around school buses and bus stops using mounted cameras and Rekor’s proprietary vehicle recognition software. Powered by machine learning, these cameras can be made to operate whether the bus is stationary or moving and identify listed vehicles even without a license plate. If the cameras pick up listed or suspicious vehicles stalking the bus or students, they notify administrators and law enforcement in real time.
According to Rekor Systems CEO Robert Berman, the goal of all these is to give school districts and municipalities a way to be proactive, rather than reactive, about student safety.

“We think that OnGuard becomes a comprehensive school safety program that casts a net, a big blanket around the whole school. It’s while (students) are on the grounds, it’s while they’re in school, it’s when they’re out of school, it’s looking at social media, it’s when they’re coming to and from school, getting on the bus, getting off the bus,” he said. “It’s being done by two pieces of very sophisticated machine learning algorithms, so the heavy lifting is being done by the technology and then supported by the expertise of folks like the ones we employ from the Secret Service.”

A white paper from Rekor frames the need for these services with statistics, particularly with respect to social media and predictable threats. According to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School, about 39 percent of violent threats in the 2017-18 school year came from social media, and a similar figure the year before. The center also reported that 63 percent of active shooters were students of the school; another 17 percent were former students.

The concept of social media monitoring has the potential to raise privacy concerns, although Berman said FIRSTSight only scans public posts, does not ask the school for a list of student names and only notifies administrators about social media posts if Rekor’s staff deems it necessary.

“When you look at the amount of data that comes through the top of that funnel, by the time it gets down to the bottom when we see an alert, there’s typically something there. At that point in time, our personnel will take that and do a deeper dive using other tools that we have to really look at it. They’ll look at the dark web, they’ll do other things, and if they think there’s something there, they’re going to pick up the phone and call the school and local law enforcement and deal with it,” he said. “The reason we use Secret Service agents is because the Secret Service as an entity, by nature, is trained to assess and avoid threat, whereas most law enforcement agencies are reactive.”

According to the company’s news release, the first implementation of OnGuard will be in Fallsburg, N.Y. Berman said OnGuard has beta tested for six months in over 100 schools in Florida and Montana, with a cumulative enrollment of close to 150,000 students, producing less than a dozen alerts.

“But within that dozen, there were a number of issues that it was fortunate that we were there to catch those,” he said.

Having implemented FIRSTSight in Rockford Public Schools in Michigan in the spring, district Security Director Scott Beckman said he’s been satisfied with the social media monitoring service thus far. He said Rockford schools made the investment to not only detect threats to the student body, but also to identify students who might be in danger of self harm.

“If it’s possible for a district to do that, I think we should look at everything that’s available out there that’s going to help us provide a more safe and secure environment. Really it’s about getting ahead of the game on a lot of these things,” he said. “It’s been pretty good. I had a phone call that was neighboring to the district that turned out not to be anything, but the phone call was made, the analytics were done and we determined it was not what it appeared on its face on social media … We know (FIRSTSight) is out there, and we know it’s doing its job. The goal is to not get those calls, but we’ve got it out there in the event we need (it).”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.