Uncovering school threats

HOUSTON – We're barely a month into the new school year and police have responded to nearly one dozen school threats.

They're happening in high schools and middle schools.

From Magnolia and Sweeny to Katy and Galveston, no school district is immune.

Just last month, the Texas City Independent School District faced two threats.

One of them was a post on Facebook threatening to shoot kids in school.

The suspect, Javonte Allen, was arrested.

The La Marque Police Department sent Channel 2 a copy of the suspected threat.

School district leaders, in part, credit social media threat-mining for catching the threat early. The man behind the district's prevention efforts is Joe Byrd, Texas City ISD's technical security officer.

He's also a dad.

"I have two kids in the district right here right now," Byrd said. "One is in second grade, one is in kindergarten."

But they're not the only ones he protects.

Byrd looks out for 9,000 other students by monitoring social media.

In August, the district launched new technology to prevent tragedies on campus.

They signed on with a company called Social Sentinel.

"We're scanning the internet, looking for potential indications of harm and then alerting school officials," said Dr. Gary Margolis, Founder of  Social Sentinel. Margolis added, "We really are that smoke alarm system in the cloud."

Margolis founded the company and he's also a former university police chief.

"Those outcries used to be a note passed in class and now it's become social media-centric," Margolis said. "We wanted to provide that level of insight so that those with a helping hand could extend that helping hand."

He makes it very clear: The technology is not meant to follow specific people.

"We are not a surveillance tool. We are not an investigative tool. We don't follow people. We are content driven. We look at the content of social media. We're scanning open sources. We're scanning roughly a billion plus every 24-hours," Margolis said.

Margolis said the company, instead, aims to "respectfully" be a part of the social media conversation.

"There are many high probability, low-impact events and then low-probability, high-impact events as we talk about in the safety and security world and our desire was to provide people charged with the protection of a safe school environment a bit of insight into the parts of the conversation on social media that should garner their attention--outcries for help, statements about potential targeted violence," Margolis said. "So, our system is really that antenna looking for a needle in a digital haystack."

The technology is much more than a simple word search.

"We built what we call a library of harm. We've engaged data scientists and linguists subject matter experts... over time we built a library that contains hundreds of thousands of behavioral threat indicators," said Margolis. He added, "So someone who says 'I just killed my French exam,' isn't going to necessarily trigger an alert. Someone who is threatening to 'kill their french teacher,' might."

This library of harm can be customized.

So, in Texas City, they can adjust the meaning of "sting" to include their mascot the stingrays.

"We deliver an insight, an alert," said Margolis. "We'll share this is what was said, this is what was expressed. We believe it's something you should pay attention too."

Alerts can trigger 24 hours a day on a phone or tablet.

School districts can even decide where to focus searches.

They can set up geo-fences, to target a specific area.

For example -- during a football game, the focus could be around social media posts near a stadium. The same idea applies for field trips.

The program can also help identify students threatening self-harm.

"They're our future leaders, and as long I’m able to provide that blanket of security for our kids and our kids' parents, i most definitely will," said Byrd.

Here is information from HISD about threats:

  • We do not use Social Sentinel although we have reviewed and explored their services as an addition to the work being done by the HISD police department.
  • Social Sentinel is a social media monitoring tool. It is NOT a reporting tool. The program utilizes several social media monitoring tools to track keywords identified by the customer in a specific area.
  • The HISD PD is currently using the same type of tools (and others) to monitor keywords. The department has been successful in tracking nearly 250 possible threats since February.
  • Twenty-four hours a day the department has monitoring tools active for Snapchat, Twitter and other sites. If something is identified, a detective is notified immediately and works directly with IT to investigate. HISD PD’s leadership team and other detectives support the investigative work.
  • Our police department also receives anonymous tips and leads.
  • The information gathered by the HISD police department is then shared through the ranks and sent to the school’s office for tracking and action. This happens regardless of the time of day. HISD’s IT department and police department work 24 hours a day to investigate and track social media threats.

Channel 2 investigates has learned other districts also use social sentinel.

See how other districts monitor social media threats in the chart below:

About the Authors:

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