LANHAM, Md. (WNEW) — Washington County Public Schools will be able to monitor social media posts made by students, teachers and anyone on their campuses with new software officials say is aimed at student safety.

Spokesman Richard Wright says “Social Sentinel” will work by picking up pre-determined buzz words posted on non-private Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

The software is “just a supplement to everything we already do for student safety and security,” Wright says.

An example of the type of thing the software would pick up on would be someone posting about a bomb, according to Wright.

If the word “bomb” was used in a non-private post made on a computer or smart phone on a school campus, the software would send either an email or text message to school officials.

Starting out, only Washington County’s middle and high school campuses will be monitored by Social Sentinel, Wright says. But he notes that the “geo sensors” that create the software’s parameters around the schools could be reconfigured to be used for off-campus events, as well.

Wright says the school system is aware of some community concerns about the monitoring software, and that a Frequently Asked Questions document is both online and being mailed to parents.

“Unfortunately threats arise more frequently via social media, so the Social Sentinel service will provide us alerts in near real-time should a threat be made,” superintendent Dr. Clayton Wilcox said in a statement.

“It will allow us to take the appropriate action based upon the policies and procedures established in our existing safety policy. We want to emphasize that we respect the right to free speech and privacy and our use of Social Sentinel will be limited to safety and security issues. At the same time, we need to ensure the community that we are doing everything we can to protect our students, staff and visitors.”

Two larger Maryland school systems, Montgomery County and Howard County, say they have no plans to implement such software.

While Washington County has about 24,000 enrolled students, Montgomery County has more than 150,000, says spokesman Dana Tofig.

“Even if we had a service that could monitor [social media]… we don’t necessarily have the personnel to deal with every instance.”

Montgomery County is, however, working on a “cyber civility” task force that encourages students to use social media in a “healthy and productive way” and parents to be more involved in that aspect of their children’s lives, he says.

The county’s health curriculum is being changed to incorporate those ideals, as well.

Howard County Public Schools spokeswoman Joan Fox says officials there don’t monitor student social media activity unless a comment comes directly to a Facebook or Twitter page managed by staff members.

The county, which enrolls about 51,000 students, just adopted its social media policy a year ago and has no current plans to change it, Fox says.


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