Vermont Schools Spy on What Students Do Online

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Schools in Vermont are hiring companies to monitor what their students post and search for online.

According to a report by investigative journalism platform VTDigger, five schools in the Green Mountain State hired Burlington-based firm Social Sentinel to track the online activities of their students. 

Social Sentinel uses keyword-based algorithms and machine learning to scan social media posts within a set geographic area for words that could indicate that a student is at risk or poses a threat to others. 

When a particular word is discovered, a red flag is raised, causing an alert to be sent to school officials. For an additional fee, Social Sentinel can also scan the contents of students' emails. The aim is to alleviate problems like cyber-bullying, self-harm, and teen suicide and to prevent mass shootings or other violence.

A further eight schools told VTDigger that they had contracts with vendors to monitor activity on district services and school-sponsored email for browsing habits and keywords that could mean a student is a threat or in danger. Companies hired to carry out the monitoring included SecurlyBark, and Lightspeed Systems.

Middle schools in the Burlington school district reported using a product called Admin, which is made by GoGuardian. Admin is a multi-layered filtering solution powered by advanced machine learning, which allows school officials to keep tabs on what students search for, watch, and read while using district devices. 

The information was uncovered when VTDigger sent a public records request to all 52 superintendents in Vermont, asking if any social media monitoring contracts had been signed. 

Contacted for comment by VTDigger, Social Sentinel founder Gary Margolis said: "We built a technology that actually helps prevent bad things from happening by giving information that can give context to what’s going on, in a way that respects privacy, and all I do is get questioned by you and folks in the media about privacy issues. It’s mind-bogglingly frustrating."

Brian Schaffer, principal at Lamoille Union High school, which contracted with Social Sentinel for a year in 2015, said the technology "wasn’t as functional as I had hoped it would be."

According to Schafffer, most of the daily alerts flagged irrelevant posts, some of which were written by Quebec tourists bragging about buying Heady Topper beer while on vacation in Vermont.

task force created by Gov. Phil Scott earlier this year to help prevent school shootings recommended that Vermont invest in monitoring software to scan social media posts statewide. The task force was formed after a plot by Fair Haven Union High School student Jack Sawyer to carry out a mass shooting at his school was discovered in February 2018.

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