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Local school systems look to social media to prevent school shootings

WASHINGTON — With the start of the school year, some local school systems are keeping an eye on social media and even turning to social media-scanning software for help in preventing school shootings.

For the past three months, Stafford County Public Schools in Stafford County, Virginia, has employed ArchiveSocial — scanning software that relies on key words to detect potential threats which are then passed on to school leaders.

“We put in a list of maybe a hundred words — keywords. If it says ‘shooting,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘blood’ — any threat — they will notify me and I can notify the principal and notify law enforcement, if need be,” said Sherrie Johnson, director of strategic communications and community engagement at Stafford County Public Schools.

The decision to use the software comes after recent school shootings — including those in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas — where police learned that suspected gunmen had posted disturbing images or threats online.

“This has been a wonderful proactive tool,” Johnson said. “Stafford County Public Schools is actually a leader when it comes to this and we’ve been helping other communication officers to use it.”

The software being used in Stafford County is not scanning students’ or staffs’ personal online accounts, but is instead employed on school division accounts.

“If a high school has a Facebook or Twitter page for that high school, that’s a division account,” Johnson said.

There are other social scanning software programs including Social Sentinel, which is being used in some Florida school districts. The Vermont-based company said it also has school clients in Maryland and Virginia but is not free to disclose which systems are using its product.

“Like everyone else, we’re seeing that threats in the real world can first manifest themselves online,” said Derek Turner, public information officer of Montgomery County Public Schools.

While Montgomery County Public Schools are not using social media scanning software, a recent security study for the school system recommended keeping a closer eye on social media to detect threats.

“We’ve asked staff to be more vigilant and each school is assigning a person who is tasked with keeping up with social media,” Turner said. “We’ve heard of other jurisdictions using the software.  We’re not there yet, but I know that social media has to be a focus if we’re committed to keeping our kids safe.”


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