Former Vt. company’s school threat tech in the spotlight following Texas shooting

Published: Jun. 15, 2022 at 4:46 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 15, 2022 at 6:50 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A Vermont-grown company has drawn national scrutiny in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Robb Elementary School reportedly used the company’s threat detection software during the 2019/2020 school year. It’s unclear if the district contracted with the company this year or if it even could have helped prevent the deadly shootings, but the discovery is sparking discussion about the efficacy of the technologies.

The company Social Sentinel was founded by former University of Vermont Police Chief Gary Margolis in 2014. The technology detects threats of violence or risk of self-harm through social media posts and internal emails. But the Ohio-based security company Navigate360 acquired Social Sentinel in 2020. Now, the technology is called Navigate360 Detect. Ever since, the company’s reach has expanded to schools across the country.

“It’s important to think about safety as this multi-faceted and complex problem to solve,” said JP Guilbault, Navigate 360′s CEO. He says one of those facets is using artificial intelligence software on social media platforms like Twitter, Reddit, Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook to scour for concerning words, images, videos, or iconography on public profiles associated with the school district, board members, or staff. “They have to be tagged back against the handle or the hashtag of the customer entity, so it is their pages we are constantly monitoring.”

Guilbault calls this “social listening” as opposed to personal surveillance, careful not to infringe on privacy rights. Some of the categories of language that get flagged include self-harm, violence against others, and fandom or fascination with past shootings. The districts decide how those alerts are communicated.

“I would either get a text message and an email alert, and they would come in 24/7, so all hours of the day or night,” said Slate Valley Unified School District Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell, who set up the software to send notifications to four central office administrators.

Following a foiled plot to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School in 2018, Slate Valley bought then-Social Sentinel’s service for about $4,000 a year. Governor Phil Scott also established an executive order examining school safety practices across the state. But Olsen-Farrell says never in three years of using the software over six schools and 1,300 students did it detect a legitimate threat. In fact, she says administrators received several false alerts, one from as far as a post made in Europe. The district severed its contract with the company last year. “We weren’t seeing a benefit from actually using that technology,” she said.

Olsen-Farrell says most concerning discussions happen behind closed doors between peers, something that Navigate360 doesn’t track. However, she says she has found another monitoring program -- GoGuardian -- that is extremely effective. It is installed on every student’s Chromebook and scans emails, private messages, and browser searches on the school domain. Still, Olsen-Farrell says this kind of software is just one tool in the toolbox that keeps kids safe.

“Really, what we focus on is building those positive relationships with law enforcement, with students. When somebody sees, they speak up and they say something,” she said.

Olsen-Farrell says the district receives a useful tip from a student, family, or staff at least once or twice a week. Both Guilbault and Olsen-Farrell agree that no technology can replace the importance of a community caretaking approach, giving people the confidence to share information they heard in a social setting or saw online.

“I always say tips lead to prevention, and today’s world is digital as much as it is social, and we need to be able to leverage as a community what we see as observable signs and what we’re told or what’s written online as the path to prevention,” Guilbault said.

Navigate360 could not say how many Vermont schools are currently contracting with the company but did say one in four districts across the country, or more than 35,000, uses their services.

Customers can purchase a suite of products or just a single prevention product -- from safety consultation to digital threat detection. The price tag is anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand.

“Being able to see the email accounts or the public profiles of social media when people are talking about particular buildings or individuals as it relates to harm, all the way down to in-school education and training of threat assessment teams and case management solutions,” Guilbault said.

Throughout the U.S. this past year, Guilbault says about once every 20 minutes, the software captures concerning conversations around mental health and once every 90 minutes it flags risks of self-harm and suicide.

He says the products work in conjunction with each other, which is why through the consulting service, the company helps districts develop anonymous tip lines and reporting symptoms in addition to the software.

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