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4 Ways Schools Can Combat Digital Threats

Administrators and law enforcement need to quickly and accurately assess the credibility of violent threats -- here's how.

Violent threats against K-12 schools increased by 158 percent since last year, according to a survey conducted by National School Safety and Security Services. Thirty-seven percent of those threats were sent electronically, primarily through social media. 

While there are a number of procedural and policy-related steps educators are taking to get a handle on this problem, one area lagging behind is finding ways to help school administrators and law enforcement agencies more quickly and accurately assess the credibility of threats.

“Threats against schools are not new — what has changed is everyone has a device that allows them to send more threats and when you send out a threat it can go to a lot more people, making the impact far greater,” said John Boatman, director of School Safety Solutions for Haystax Technology. “Schools are losing ground when it comes to being able to manage these kinds of threats.”

The National School Safety and Security Services study also found that schools evacuated in almost 30 percent of the cases and closed in nearly 10 percent — often prematurely and unnecessarily. The FBI was involved in about 5 percent of the cases.

“If you can get weed out the credible threats from the non-credible threats, you save a lot of time, money and psychological trauma,” said Boatman.

Also of note is the fact that in 80 percent of active shooting incidents, the perpetrator warned someone close to them 24 hours before the act took place, making the ability to track and respond to threats even more critical.

The following are four ways schools can help combat digital threats.

1. Use Multiple Technologies

There is no magic bullet when it comes to assessing the credibility of school threats. Schools need a variety of technologies that aggregate many different kinds of data to provide real-time situational awareness. They also need the ability to store data to look for trends later on.

McAllen Independent School District, comprising 30,000 students, teachers and employees near the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, recently launched Haystax School Safety Center, a cloud-based software platform that gives school administrators and public safety agencies a common operational picture of the school security environment.

Using advanced threat analytics and natural language processing, McAllen ISD will now be able to filter out all but the highest priority data to anticipate and respond to the most pressing threats.

“I don't just want to control a crisis; I want to get ahead of it,” said Chief Cris Esquivel of the McAllen Independent School District Police Department. “When we’re in an emergency situation we have to be able to both receive and disseminate accurate information without delay to the responding officers, parents, district leaders and the broader community. The School Safety Center is my one-stop shop for critical school data and photos, emergency plans, floor plans, news and social media.”

The School Safety Center analyzes threats from a number of different fronts, including an integrated ecosystem of school safety software tools. It ingests, processes, analyzes and filters large volumes of digital media information so the “signals” are separated from the routine “noise.” It then fuses that information into a visually familiar environment like a map, alongside other data like incident alerts, event data, and physical asset locations and details to help make sense of what in some cases could be a major emerging threat.

“The combined technology approach gets data down to the point where it’s providing schools with real threat information, but not overwhelming them,” said Boatman. “All this gives them a more powerful ability to derive useful information, even out of anonymous apps.”

2. Put Pressure on Anonymous App Providers

The sudden availability of anonymous apps has contributed to the proliferation of threats. Suddenly, students can make threats with much less concern that they’ll get caught.

“The more common apps like Facebook and Twitter aren’t the biggest challenge; it’s the newer anonymous apps that [schools] are least equipped to deal with,” said Boatman. “This results in a tremendous resource drain on law enforcement because they are constrained to respond to these and take them very seriously, especially when it’s a threat that involves violence.”

Anonymous apps like AfterSchool, Whisper, YikYak and Secret have caused a barrage of problems at schools around the country, as students use them to make threats or bully other students. But objections from schools and parents have begun to make a difference, and some of the app providers have begun to step up and self-regulate. For example, AfterSchool — which was originally targeted at the college audience — now auto-flags inappropriate words and requires users to show a form of ID before signing up. And Secret shut down effective April 29, partly as the result of outcries from schools, administrators and parents.

3. Be Willing to Share

“A common operating platform where everyone can share data makes us much stronger when it comes to being aware of potential threats,” said Chief John Newman of Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools Security Department, which is now using Haystax’s Safe Schools Assessment Tool. Newman added that they are now addressing more social media threats more frequently than ever before.

For the McAllen Independent School District, critical threat and school facility information will now be aggregated into a single alerting and monitoring tool available any time, any place on any device. This will give the McAllen ISD Police Department and district leaders a 360-degree view of their area of operations.

“I have several different pieces of software that do their own thing, but it all lives in standalone systems, so during an actual emergency you’d have to toggle between screens,” said Esquivel. “Having everything in one place now will allow us to respond faster and share data more easily. We’re now in a better position to get in front of issues and noise — whether that means we send patrols to an area or simply get information that can help us stop a threat before it starts.”

4. Be Flexible

Six months from now there will be new apps and new technologies to manage.

“Being flexible is key,” said Boatman. “As kids move from one platform to another, schools must be ready to constantly model and analyze new threats.”

Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at