Company monitors Facebook for schools to thwart bullying, violence

Social Net Watcher touts first-of-its-kind service

INDIANAPOLIS - A first-of-its-kind warning system already in use in three schools in Indiana aims to protect children from bullies and bullets.

Social Net Watcher, a high-tech program developed in Indiana, promises to help school administrators pinpoint threats in real-time by scanning a child's Facebook page.

Most of the more than 1 million children who attend school in Indiana are computer savvy, and Facebook is the 21st century playground where, at times, children threaten to hurt or kill others.

For Social Net Watcher users, those words will trigger warnings that could prevent trouble or a tragedy at school.

Cyber bullying is a pervasive problem that continues to evolve as technologies develop over time.

Heather Campbell shed light on death threats against her son, Patrick, posted on Facebook and related acts of violence outside her home.

"We were terrorized," Campbell said. "They were shooting at our home. They threw a brick through our window at the middle of the night. They took brass knuckles and beat our garage. I was in fear for my kids' safety."

The children involved in the attacks often bragged on social media about the incidents, Campbell said.

"(There were) pictures of guns saying they were going to take care of the job tonight and saying they wanted to kill me," said Patrick Campbell, a high school senior.

Patrick said he doesn't know why he was targeted, but it ended last year when prosecutors filed criminal charges.

School authorities were unaware of the problem until Patrick's mother brought it to their attention.

Over the past two years, children have detailed violent intentions on Facebook that were often discovered by authorities after young lives were taken or children were injured.

In February 2012 near Cleveland, T.J. Lane shot three high school students. He had posted his plans online 30 days before the shooting.

In August 2011, Tampa police prevented an attack at a high school based on information gleaned from the suspect's Facebook postings.

That same month in Louisiana, police arrested three boys who threatened online to shoot up the school.

In February 2011 in Martinsville, Michael Phelps shot a classmate. He had talked about his plans days earlier on Facebook.

Bruce Canal, a retired Indiana State Police trooper with 30 years of experience, spent two years working on Social Net Watcher with the aim of alerting schools about online threats.

"This is a breakthrough tool for school security," Canal said. "This is going to help predict that troubled student who is either being berated or beaten up and needs help, or student who is coming to the point where he is going to act out in a criminal manner or suicidal manner."

Schools that sign up must get permission from the student and their guardian to allow Social Net Watcher to monitor their Facebook wall posts.

The monitoring includes messages from friends. The service does not scan pictures or focus on messages related to sex, drugs or alcohol.

If someone types that someone will die tomorrow, the school will receive a violence alert with a red background.

If someone types that they can't take the torment anymore, the school will receive a suicide alert with a yellow background.

If someone suggests that another person should kill themselves, the school gets a bullying alert with a green background.

The text alerts provide school administrators with the name of the person receiving the message and all the related postings.

That information gives educator the chance to determine whether the message is child's play or requires the attention of a counselor or a police officer.

Indianapolis Public Schools police Sgt. John Akers patrols the hallways and teaches a class, but he currently doesn't have access to messages being exchanged between students.

"I would like to know in advance because I want to be proactive," Akers said.

Recovering from cyber bullying has been a long road for the Campbell family. There are still several surveillance cameras outside their home, and the family is mindful of online friends and foes.

"I like the fact that you can get in touch with friends (on Facebook)," Heather Campbell said. "When it's used to harm other people, I hate that."

The three schools using Social Net Watcher in Indiana, and one in Tennessee, include nearly 6,000 students. The company hopes to have 25 school systems using the product by the end of the year.

The company is continually updating its database to include words, phrases and text combinations to pinpoint language that could lead to a threat or people hurting themselves.

For those concerned about privacy, Social Net Watcher said friends of those who signed up are not alerted that their messages are being monitored.

Schools only get access to messages involving bullying, suicide or violence.

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