Sunday, August 31, 2014

WCPS and Social Sentinel - In Depth

HAGERSTOWN, MD - On Friday, August 29, the Washington County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Wilcox was kind enough to meet with the WashCo Chronicle Editor to provide a demonstration and discussion on Social Sentinel, the service being used to monitor social media for threats against our county's schools and students.

One of the key points which was stressed by Dr. Wilcox is that Social Sentinel is only a small part of WCPS approach to keeping Washington County students safe, and is only a supplement to physical security measures which are already in place, such as security vestibules and security cameras across the county. While security cameras are in place on a county-wide, centrally monitored network, currently only Middle and High schools are being monitored by Social Sentinel.

Social Sentinel is currently under a one year contract with WCPS, for approximately $20,000. The agreement between WCPS and Social Sentinel is publicly available by contacting WCPS.

Maintainin Keyword Lists

Social Sentinel works to supplement current safety measures by alerting WCPS staff of possible threats posted publicly on social media by monitoring for keywords in the following categories only:

  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Threats to others and self
  • Weapons

To reduce false positives, at least two keywords are required in order for the service to trigger an alert. Any alert triggered is then reviewed by the WCPS administration, and the corresponding school and/or law enforcement are contacted if a reasonable threat is apparent. Keyword lists are initially pre-populated by the Social Sentinel service, and updated on a constant basis upon input from students and teachers, including students at Antietam Academy, as well as Social Sentinel themselves. Suggested updates to the list are sent from school officials to the WCPS special projects administrator, where central control of the service is retained. While the keyword lists will not be made available publicly, any parent who wishes to see more in-depth what is being monitored is welcome to schedule an appointment with WCPS central office in Downsville for a demonstration of the service. There are also plans to hold regular public meetings to discuss revisions to the keyword lists. Only the lists are modified - additional categories are not being added.

Public Social Media Posts and Privacy Concerns

When asked about the service's effectiveness being reduced due to only public posts being monitored, Dr. Wilcox stated that according to the experts he discussed the topic with - those who would post in advance about a threat to the schools will typically do so publicly if they intend harm.

Students, teachers, and parents who are concerned about their privacy on social media should consider reviewing their profile and post privacy settings, to ensure posts are only view-able by friends only. Each social media site will have different instructions for configuring these privacy settings.

The current list of monitored social networks includes, but will not always be limited to:

  • Facebook
  • Flicker
  • Google+
  • Instagram
  • Meetup
  • Tumblr
  • Twitter
  • Vimeo
  • YouTube

The service does not have the capability to be used to stalk or profile individual students or teachers, since only posts with matching keywords are alerted.

Geo-location Based Monitoring on School Property Only

"Geo-fences" are established based upon school property lines, to target monitoring for only activity on school property. Individual students, teachers, or parents cannot be targeted by this tool.
WCPS has found the geo-fence accuracy is extremely accurate. Public posts which are even slightly outside the property boundaries will not be detected by Social Sentinel. Moving or modifying geo-fence settings will require Board of Education approval at a public meeting.

Data Retention for 30 Days

Any data gathered by Social Sentinel remains on the Social Sentinel servers, and is not stored by WCPS. Posts are retained for 30 days, then removed. No additional data is retained, and contrary to rumors, data is not being used to build profiles of students or teachers.

Transparency and Openness

WCPS intends to be as open and transparent as possible with the service.

  • While keyword lists will not be published, parents are welcome at any time to come to WCPS and view what is being monitored, including the geo-fence locations
  • Moving of geo-fences will require Board of Education approval at a public meeting


While I typically try to refrain from including my personal opinion in articles, I feel it is necessary for me to include my opinion in this instance.

It is my belief that as long as the use of Social Sentinel remains true to its original purpose, of detecting and preventing threats to our schools, that this service should continue to be used, and will provide a valuable service to the community. However, as with any such service, the potential for abuse exists, and checks and balances should always be in place. It is my belief that with proactive involvement of elected Board of Education members, as well as continuous involvement with parents and teachers, the transparency and openness needed to prevent abuse can be maintained.

Dr. Wilcox, as well as the special projects administrator Jamie, were extremely helpful in providing this demonstration to me, and I would like to thank both of them for taking an hour of their time on a Friday afternoon. Both were extremely open and honest to me about capabilities, intentions, and use of the service. After this meeting, I feel very reassured about this service, and believe that any concerns can be put to rest. With that said, any parents or teachers who have remaining concerns, I would strongly encourage you to contact Dr. Wilcox, and arrange a meeting to view the service and its capabilities firsthand.

For additional information, please visit the WCPS page on Social Sentinel.

Below is Dr. Wilcox's original email on Social Sentinel, unedited, for readers' review.

Ken, we could meet early in the morning or after hours as well if it would be more convenient for you. Additionally I can meet over the weekend if that would be more convenient. I think it is important for you to actually see the system work if you are preparing to write about it – rather than just relying on a few words on the printed page. At the same time – given the chatter on WC Parents and what is likely to follow on your blog I’d offer this. We have been open and honest about our intention to use this technology. We said clearly we were going to monitor high school and middle school campuses (using property lot lines as the physical proxies for our geo-fences) for threats against students or staff members.
We have four key word lists which the Social Sentinel algorithm scans. The lists are titled; drugs and alcohol, bullying and harassment, threats to others and self, and weapons.
As we (I) have said numerous times publically, we will not expand the lists or the geo-fences without explicit approval of the Board, gained in public session. Let me speak to each of these scenarios. First adding to the lists. Previously we have noted that we are going to convene parent and student groups to help us stay current with the local lexicon – our first meeting with Student Government leaders is scheduled for September 9th.  We will meet with other groups (i.e. local law enforcement, health care providers) and student groups on occasion. We will be scheduling meetings with parent groups this fall and again in the spring. In each of these sessions – we will provide a base group of words for their consideration, quickly moving to additions and subtractions to the list. Keeping the list “fresh” will be the responsibility of my special projects administrator. I believe there will be at meetings open to the larger community for the purpose of working with the base list and offering additions and subtractions to the list. After these meetings we will present the additions and or subtractions to the Board. We do not intend at this point to ask the Board’s permission to add or subtract words from the list at this time – as we take this function to be operational in nature and given that each step is done in public - completely transparent .
To the second point, moving the geo-fences beyond the property lines. We have publically stated we will not do that or even expand to the elementary schools without the expressed approval of the Board. A request to move the geo-fences would have to be done in a public meeting -  as it is not a covered discussion topic under Maryland’s open meetings law during closed session. While I believe the example of widening the geo-fence to listen to traffic about the common core was not the smartest choice of examples given the hot button nature of sentiment about the common core – it would be possible though highly unlikely that we would make such a request of the Board.
A sample list of current social media we can scan includes Facebook, Flicker, Google+, Instagram, Meetup, Tumblr, Twitter, Vimeo, and UTube. Please read our Q and A as to when we can “see” this media.
We do not plan to publish the list of key words but as I indicated we will show them to anyone willing to invest the time to come to our offices and ask to review them.
There is not currently a policy in place for the specific use of Social Sentinel, there is a social media policy currently in place and the Board is considering a new bullying and harassment policy which could be applied to the unethical use of Social Sentinel or any technology. In addition, the Board has an ethics committee that meets regularly and would vigorously pursue allegations of misconduct.  
I’ve included a link to what has currently been published and shared and I would welcome meeting with you as I suggested.
Clayton M. Wilcox, Ed.D. |  Superintendent of Schools
Building a Community That Inspires Curiosity, Creativity, and Achievement.

This article was written by Ken Buckler, Editor.