In April 2018 the Flagler County School District approved a three-year, $55,000 contract with Social Sentinel, a surveillance company that was to snoop on social media accounts, ostensibly to detect potential violence or self-harm. The district did so despite opposition from students, considerable controversy in the community and skepticism about the snooping system’s effectiveness.
The district had the option to end the contract after one year. In April, it did just that, quietly, and before the end of the school year. Social Sentinel had been ineffective.
“We didn’t think we were getting the results that we were expecting, and there were other avenues coming online with the state,” Jason Wheeler, the district’s chief spokesman, said. Over the course of the year the Social Sentinel system may have triggered “one or two” alerts that may have seemed valid, though one proved to have been a case of mixed identity and was not, in fact, an alert. The second involved a possible (but unverified) case of self-harm. A parent or guardian was notified and counselors followed up, but even then, it’s not clear if something serious took place, or was prevented.
“There was a discussion at the district level about the effectiveness of the dollars being spent on Social Sentinel,” Ryan Diesing, the district’s technology chief, said. “The district felt there were better ways to spend the dollars that were allocated for that project.”
After discussions with the district’s security team (a group of senior administrators), Diesing signed a $3,450 agreement with a 6-year-old company that’s been getting a lot of attention (and contracts) lately: CrisisGo, a computer and app-based crisis management system that essentially brings some of the methods of emergency management divisions down to the level of individual buildings, classrooms, teachers and students, integrating all these levels in such a way that during emergencies large and small–any emergency, not just mass shooters–instant communication is established between the district, principals, and faculty or staff wherever the emergency is taking place, enabling various levels of responses up to and potentially including law enforcement, firefighters and other first-responders.
The system can atomize the emergency response down to knowing exactly who should be in what classroom if an emergency breaks out, and enables the tracking of those in the middle of an emergency, or those who press the panic button that the system enables.
Unlike Social Sentinel, it has nothing to do with overbroad surveillance (or any kind of surveillance) and nothing to do with social media, but it potentially uses all electronic devices within reach of faculty or students to mobilize a network of awareness and facilitate the response. Should it be instituted in all schools, as is the district’s goal by the end of the year, it would cost $1,000 per school, or $10,000 a year–less than the annual cost of Social Sentinel.
For now, the system is being piloted in four schools: Flagler Palm Coast High School, Matanzas High School Buddy Taylor Middle School and Wadsworth Elementary. The principals got an overview over the summer, when CrisisGo was also integrated into Skyward, the district’s computerized data management network that students and faculty access daily, so sign-ons are identical.
The Flagler County School Board got its first overview of CrisisGo Tuesday (it had been scheduled for a July presentation but a CrisisGo official couldn’t make it).
CrisisGo’s David Kavlick and Diesing appeared before the board to describe the central components of the system.
“One thing to keep in mind,” Kavlick said, “so many organizations and everybody right now is looking at the active shooter component. Luckily, that’s not the common reason to use it. We’re involved with fires, we’re involved in chemical spills in chemistry labs, medical emergencies, all those things fall under a crisis situation, not necessarily because someone is entering the building to start shooting.”
Panic alerts may be triggered at the district, school or classroom level, for example, either for a broad emergency (think of a tornado warning) or a localized chemical spill, or a grave medical situation or a fight in a classroom. If an administrator were to issue a school-wide alert, it would go to all employees in the building and may include district officials. Classroom teachers can hit their panic button on a cell phone, a laptop or any device or operating system. “It doesn’t matter what you’re using, it can work on everything,” Kavlick said. The panic situation opens a two-way communication between the teacher and a responder. (It wasn’t made clear who that would be.) At that point, the teacher becomes trackable by GPS, though the tracking ends when the event ends, so there’s no issue of the teacher being surveilled beyond that.
If there’s a police situation in the community, law enforcement can use the system to alert a school to go on lockdown. Diesing said there’s been receptive discussions with the sheriff’s office to adopt the system with the district, but that would have to be formalized through a memorandum of understanding.
The district is focusing on another component of the CrisisGo system: “Accounting for people.” That becomes necessary when students must be accounted for.
“Accounting for people is another big one,” Kavlick said. “Reunification, check-in status during an event where the roster from the classroom actually is customized to each teacher based on the student’s schedule and the teacher’s schedule, so if you’re teaching seventh period language arts and something happens in the school, the roster for that class will come up in the teacher’s phone, and they can then start accounting for the students that are there and then also let others know who isn’t there.” Diesing said the check-in at the student’s end would be voluntary, as would the downloading of the CrisisGo app on students’ individual phones. But the app would be standard on school-issued computers and tablets.
There’s also a student component: “Safe to Speak,” to report bullying or “anything that happens within the school, so they can report if someone has a gun, if someone is stealing drugs, if someone else is being bullied,” Kavlick said, “they can report all that anonymously, but there’s also a panic button on that app for that student, so if they’re feeling danger, they can hit that panic alert, it goes to the administration or the school resource officer, they respond back and the GPS kicks off on their phone so you can track that specific student.”
That component is not part of Flagler’s pilot program. School Board member Colleen Conklin said it should be: she found it to be a notable part of the system. It sounds like our reporting system on steroids,” Conklin said. “I’m just afraid if we don’t pilot something now we’re going to be a year behind.”
But that’s also where some of the redundancy issues with CrisisGo emerge: the Flagler school district already has in place its computer-based See Something, Say Something campaign. The state has the nearly identical Fortify Florida system. CrisisGo amplifies some of the same goals, and then some, though it’s “much more sophisticated than those two things,” Superintendent Jim Tager said.
“That would be my worry that we’re pushing people in too many different [directions] and we’re not going to capture everything,” Conklin said.
Diesing said all three have been discussed, as has the possibility that one would preclude the other. Those discussions are still ongoing, and there’s at least some lack of clarity on the district’s part about how the three systems will work together, or even beyond their intended uses. “We’ve had conversations about what happens when students are using computer devices inappropriately–how do those get managed, how do students report those as well,” Diesing said, “so not just from a safety standpoint, but also kind of overall, just here’s something that’s concerning.” All that, Diesing said, is a “larger conversation” that’s only begun.
In an interview, Diesing said the data that would be whirling between devices during emergencies, such as classroom rosters and students’ identities, would be exchanged in the district-controlled system, and would not be visible to outsiders, or by the company.
The board wants an update on the pilot program in nine weeks. Diesing suggested that some of that conversation should take place behind closed doors, which raised a concern for Conklin–and would likely raise concerns among students and in the community as well, since the system itself has no reason to be discussed secretly. Diesing said that the only things that would be discussed behind closed doors would be the system’s integration with the district’s security platforms.
“This is the first the public is going to be hearing about this, right now at this meeting,” Conklin said, perhaps remembering the sharp criticism the board heard during the Social Sentinel debate. “I do think it’s going to be important as we go through the process that we update the public on where we are, how it’s being utilized, how it’s working. We don’t have to get into the details for sure, what modules we have gone through.” She also asked for the CrisisGo powerpoint presentation to be added to the school board’s website. As of Thursday, it had not been.
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