School district software monitors students’ online activity and helps prevent tragedies

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School districts in the San Antonio area and across the state monitor students’ online activity and look for threatening comments through software such as Social Sentinel or Gaggle.

Nearly 200 of the 1,200 school districts in Texas use software similar to Social Sentinel or Gaggle, including two school districts in the San Antonio area.

ISD Northeast Police Chief Wally McCampbell said in one case a student typed a “deranged” suicide note into his email and within minutes school district officials had been informed via Social Sentinel. The student was then referred to mental health resources.

“When confronted, the student said, ‘Yeah, I was really thinking about it,’ which surprised the parents. They had no idea. So they really appreciated that we were watching it and seeing it and we were informed so we could come out and prevent a tragedy,” McCampbell said.

Social Sentinel only tracks public messages posted within the geographical boundaries of Northeast ISD. It can also monitor student emails.

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In comparison, Seguin ISD uses similar software called Gaggle. However, Seguin ISD Police Chief Matthew Gutierrez said he only monitors student email and Google Drive activity.

“It’s a huge bank of language that he uses to really do this threat assessment and determine that this is something the campus needs to be aware of,” Gutierrez said.

Both district police chiefs said the software had proven useful in preventing a crisis.

“It allows schools to be very quick in their response and possibly save lives and prevent something tragic from happening,” Gutierrez said.

“It’s worth every penny because a life saved is worth being associated with. Otherwise Social Sentinel, another kind of company doing the same thing because we’re all here to do the same thing and saving lives” , McCampbell said.

However, the software, while useful, isn’t perfect.

Uvalde CISD was using Social Sentinel before the shooting at Robb Elementary in late May. The shooter’s digital fingerprint was not detected by the software because he sent his threats through private messages or to a private account. These threats were not reported.

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McCampbell said that’s why it’s important for students and parents to fill the gaps in technology.

“If I message you privately that I’m going to shoot the school tomorrow, no one else will see it unless you report it.” And that’s, that’s the difference,” McCampbell said.

Gaggle costs Seguin ISD nearly $20,000 a year.

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