Employees at Social Sentinel in Burlington, Vt. “If a student is posting about shooting their
teacher, we would hope we’d be able to find something like that,” said Gary Margolis, the
company’s chief executive
Hours after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., companies that market their services to schools began to speak up. “Governor, take pride that a Vermont-based company is helping schools identify the violence before it happens,” one company wrote on Twitter to Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont.
The chief executive of another company appeared on the news to boast of a “home run”: Its algorithms, he said, had helped prevent two student suicides.
To an anguished question that often follows school shootings — Why didn’t anyone spot the warning signs? — these companies have answered with a business model: 24/7 monitoring of student activity on social media.
Often without advance warning to students and parents, the companies flag posts like those of Auseel Yousefi, who was expelled in 2013 from his high school in Huntsville, Ala., for Twitter posts made on the last day of his junior year. “A kid has a right to be who they want outside of school,” he said later.
More than 100 public school districts and universities, faced with the prospect that the next attacker may be among their own students, have hired social media monitoring companies over the past five years, according to a review of school spending records. And each successive tragedy brings more customers: In the weeks after the Parkland attack, dozens of schools entered into such contracts, even though there is little evidence that the programs work as promised.
The customers have included districts reeling in the aftermath of shootings, like the Newtown Public Schools in Connecticut; some of the nation’s largest urban school systems, like Los Angeles and Chicago; and prominent universities like Michigan State and Florida State. The monitoring is one of a host of products and services, including active shooter insurance and facial recognition technology, that are being marketed to schools amid questions about their value.
“If it helps save one life, it’s worth every dollar spent on it,” said Chris Frydrych, the chief executive of Geo Listening, a California company whose website says, “Don’t miss out on the opportunity to listen.”
In many cases the monitoring contracts have not worked out as planned. There is little evidence the companies have helped ferret out brewing threats of violence, bullying or self-harm, according to a review of contracts, marketing materials and emails obtained through public records requests.
But in hiring them, schools expand the traditional boundaries of their responsibility, and perhaps, experts say, their liability. And, the documents show, they vacuum up hundreds of harmless posts, raising questions about student privacy.
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