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Monitoring Twitter for Potential School Threats

Tweets can be monitored in real time, multiple searches can be done simultaneously and they can be narrowed down to a specific-mile radius.

Students who threaten violence at school on Twitter are being monitored by private companies that look for keywords like “bomb,” “shooting,” “guns” and “bullying.”

Students at two school districts in Springfield, Ohio, found that out the hard way in the last two months.

Tweets they posted on their personal Twitter accounts were flagged by companies as potential threats, and calls were made to local law enforcement and school officials, alerting them to the tweets.

But one expert — who said it is not an invasion of privacy — warns that a single tweet doesn’t tell the whole story about a particular student and there are other factors involved, like learning environment, relationships and age.

In December, GEOCOP — run by HMS Technologies in West Virginia — informed school officials at Clark-Shawnee in Springfield that one of its students made a threat on Twitter, posting he was “going to shoot up the school before I go.”

Springboro got the call from another company in January that a senior male student threatened on Twitter to “blow up the school.”

“Threats are to be taken seriously no matter if it is a handwritten note or if they’re delivered in texts or social media,” said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education. “The rules are the same. The mode to deliver it is different and obviously more advanced these days, but we still need to be vigilant about it.”

GEOCOP — which contracts with schools, law offices, security firms and other businesses — provides “gets” to show what they can do with the hopes of securing a contract with that entity. What unfolded in early December in Springfield was a “get,” said Carter Craft, vice president of business development for HMS Technologies.

A “get” is a free service or an example to “show people the power of it,” he said, but GEOCOP does not do free monitoring for schools. GEOCOP has had 15 to 20 “gets” in Ohio, Craft said. Craft said there is no hacking, and if an account is set to private, GEOCOP will not see it.

About 10 percent of the time a “get” leads to a contract, which is $4,000 a year. GEOCOP is not contracted with any school districts in Ohio, and Craft did not know how many contracts the company has with districts around the country.

“We’re not going to hound people,” Craft said. “It’s very inexpensive. If it prevents one kid from getting harmed from God forbid a shooting, then it’s well worth it.”

The responsibility to monitor it falls on school officials, like a resource officer or administrator. There is no software to download, and an account can be accessed by logging into any device that has Internet capabilities.

Tweets can be monitored in real time, multiple searches can be done simultaneously and they can be narrowed down to a specific-mile radius, Craft said.

“We’re not law enforcement,” Craft said. “Twitter is today’s police scanner. You might find stuff out on Twitter before police find out about it.”

‘Shoot Up the School’

In early December, a Clark-Shawnee senior male student posted on Twitter that he was “going to shoot up the school before I go,” which the student said were lyrics to a song.

The threat was posted on Twitter around 10:45 a.m., and the school district received a call from GEOCOP about 30 minutes later.

Brian Kuhn, Clark-Shawnee assistant superintendent, said when the call came in from GEOCOP, the representative walked school officials through what the company was seeing, and they were able to verify the threat came from a Shawnee student.

“Technology provides great power, but it comes with great responsibility,” Kuhn said. “There are always people watching.”

Clark-Shawnee Superintendent Gregg Morris said it was “deemed very quickly” that the posting did not pose a threat. Sheriff’s deputies were able to corroborate the student’s story after interviewing other students who were with him when the tweet was posted.

Morris declined to say what the discipline was but said the student is currently enrolled in the district. No charges were filed, Shawnee High School principal Nathan Dockter said.

Morris said the district has not pursued a further relationship with GEOCOP due to financial constraints that “would make it very difficult to move in a direction like this.”

“At the same time, it’s something we’ll be learning about and watching in the future,” Morris said.

On Jan. 7, water pipes burst at two schools in the Springboro school district. Later that day, a Springboro senior male student made a threat on Twitter, posting, “Don’t worry guys ill make sure we don’t have school. Operation blow up the school is in effect,” according to a Springboro police incident report.

The threat was discovered by a monitoring agency, STG Sentinel, based in Virginia. The caller from the company advised the threat came from a male juvenile in Springboro.

Once he was tracked down, the student told police that he wasn’t making any threats to students or staff, but was making a joke about the water pipes bursting at the high school. He was later charged with making false alarms and disorderly conduct, according to the Springboro Police Department.

Springboro superintendent Todd Petrey and school resource officer Don Wilson did not return messages seeking additional details.

No ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Solution

Melissa Spirek, chair and professor of the communication department at Wright State University, said companies that monitor Twitter for keywords aren’t invading privacy because it is public domain.

However, what’s not taken into consideration is social class, the culture of the school and learning environment, age, and student relationships with classmates and teachers, Spirek said.

“Bottom line, it’s more complex,” Spirek said. “Teachers and principals know their student populations. They know the demographics of the students and their word choices. For someone outside the community to make this recommendation, it is ill-informed.”

Spirek said even if a Twitter account is locked and tweets are protected, it’s still an open domain because the user can hand the phone to someone else or a follower can copy and paste the tweet and make it public.

Spirek said it’s up to the individual school district if it wants to pay the $4,000. But when a student posts, “’I’m going to blow my exam away,’ you’re going to pay $4,000 for that?” she said.

“If they have the money, it’s one more tool in the tool chest,” Spirek said. “If they can afford it, it’s a good thing. But I don’t believe it’s a one size fits all.”

©2014 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)