Will monitoring students' social media feeds help keep them safe?

It's a question that seems to be asked after every high school attack or student suicide, like the recent shooting in La Loche, Sask., or stabbing attack in Pickering, Ont. The high-profile deaths of B.C. teen Amanda Todd and Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons have also shone a spotlight on the issue.

Some U.S. schools are already doing it.

Orange County Public Schools — a school board in central Florida — started using a program called Snaptrends in May 2015, paying about $14,000 for a one-year contract.

Board spokesperson Shari Bobinski says the social media-monitoring software has already saved one life. "We were able to intervene in what could have been a deadly situation of a child threatening to commit suicide," she said. 

Using a set of keywords, the software picked up the threat and flagged it to the school board, which was able to get law enforcement in touch with the proper people at the child's home, Bobinski explained.

"You can't argue with the importance of keeping our students and staff safe," she said.

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A stabbing at Dunbarton High School in Pickering, Ont., on Feb. 23 injured nine people, including three teachers. (Salvatore Sacco/Canadian Press)

Here in Canada, the issue of school safety was most recently back in the spotlight last month after a stabbing attack at Dunbarton High School in Pickering, Ont. A female student is alleged to have entered the high school on the morning of Feb. 23 armed with two knives, attacking both staff and students. Nine people were injured, including three teachers.

A 14-year-old girl is facing 17 charges.

Police have yet to determine the teen's motive, but suggested posts on social media foreshadowed the attack.

Canada's landscape

There is already some form of monitoring already happening here.

Safer Schools Together (SST) provides data collection for school districts across Canada, as well as in California. The B.C.-based company has compiled "student worrisome online behaviour" reports (WOB) for 25 school districts to date, said president Theresa Campbell, adding she expects that number to increase. 

"You should be concerned when you see districts not utilizing every tool available to them to address violent risk assessment," she said.

WOB reports collect data from students' social media using filters, keywords and geolocation information, as well as uses staff trained to navigate the open-source online world. The aim is to alert school officials to potentially harmful situations.

Campbell said the SST system is different from other social-media monitoring software because it adds a human element.

While the company uses software to flag certain posts based on a keyword algorithm, Campbell believes you need to gather more data to weed out innocent posts that may sound threatening from the real threats. A student writing "this sandwich is the bomb," for example, is a far cry from a serious bomb threat. 

If a potential threat is identified, SST tracks the digital footprint around that single tweet or Facebook post to better assess if the individual is actually a risk.

Campbell said the services cost "15 to 20 per cent less than the districts paying for a software service."

Community policing

Collecting students' online data isn't the only option. Schools boards in Canada employ a number of methods to tackle the issue of safety in schools.

The Halifax Regional School Board, the jurisdiction that grappled with Rehtaeh Parsons' death in 2013, uses what they call community policing — essentially a self-policing system.

"We rely on others becoming aware and someone bringing it forward," board spokesperson Doug Hadley said.

Rehtaeh Parsons

The 2013 death of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons shone a spotlight on the issue of cyberbullying. (Canadian Press)

The Halifax Regional School Board doesn't monitor students' social media unless there is a reason for it, Hadley said, noting it would be impossible to know exactly what is going on with all students on all forms of social media.

After Parsons' death, the province of Nova Scotia instituted policy changes, like revising the student code of conduct, adding more guidance counsellors and placing a greater focus on mental health education.

The 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S., died after attempting to take her own life after a graphic photo of her circulated on social media. She had faced intense bullying and online harassment.

The best approach to avoiding future incidents, Hadley said, is to "build good relationships with students to make them feel like they can come forward."

Safety monitors

Though the Pickering stabbing occurred in the GTA, the Toronto District School Board — Canada's largest board, with 245,000 students — says it has no plans to monitor its students' online activities.

"In general, the sheer volume of students we have here at TDSB — to monitor each and every social media channel, even if we could, would be next to near-impossible," spokesperson Ryan Bird said.

Instead, the TDSB employs safety monitors in some of its schools.

A safety monitor is essentially a trusted person students can come to if they have a problem. They routinely walk the halls and school grounds, looking for anything that is out of place — even if it's just someone not acting the way they normally do.

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Residents in La Loche, Sask., hold signs during a walk to take back their high school after a deadly shooting on Jan. 22, 2016. Four people were killed and seven injured. (Matt Kruchak/CBC)

David Bradley has been a safety monitor at Toronto's Earl Haig Secondary School since 2003. He said online monitoring would be another helpful tool.

"I think it would be beneficial to all to be able to essentially read the faces through the words and get help to the person who is hurting or angry or getting bullied, before they turn to injuring others or themselves," Bradley said.

But he said the best approach is to simply be approachable. "The key is to hopefully get to the hurting people long before they resort to violence."

He added students will often flag things to him if they see something of concern — whether online or off.

While there is no "overt monitoring" done by the TDSB, Bird said the board pays attention to any mentions or messages directed at TDSB and addresses any concerns from there.

Ethical dilemma?

One of the major sticking points when it comes to monitoring students' social posts centres around the issue of ethics: some suggest the practice infringes upon students' right to privacy, while others say it something best left to parents.

Const. Scott Mills, a social media officer for the Toronto Police Service, has been a social media advocate for 14 years and firmly believes it has a role to play when it comes to student safety.

He said he thinks monitoring students' social media is ethical, as long as it's within reason. "It's ethical if you've got a purpose for doing it, [if it's] for the success and safety of the students."

Andrew Clement, a professor of information studies at the University of Toronto, agrees.

"There may be some occasions when monitoring by school authorities may be justified, but it should only be conducted under very delimited, transparent and accountable conditions," he said. 

If you ask Mills, it's not a question of if we'll eventually rely on social-media monitoring, but when.

He expects the question will one day be: "Why weren't you engaging and finding this stuff and doing something about it before something bad happens?"