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School Staff Now Allowed To Probe Social Media for Online Threats

The security coordinator for the Howard County Public School System said each school will have the capacity to look into Facebook, Twitter situations.

As school starts in Howard County, so does a new program to investigate online threats to students.

Kevin Burnett, coordinator of security for the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), said that a staff member at each school has been authorized to look into potential situations arising out of social media.

Previously, all staff at HCPSS institutions were firewalled from using social media sites, said Burnett.

“If there’s a rumor that something is on Facebook or Twitter, that security officer is going to have bypass access to pull that information up and conduct an investigation,” said Burnett in a phone interview with Patch.

“That’s relatively new based on a meeting last year at Howard [High]," said Burnett.

He was referencing an anti-bullying forum that Ravens running back  at  last May after Glenelg student Grace McComas, 15, and student Eugene Swen, 16, committed suicide in less than two weeks, in two separate incidents.

The parents of McComas said that she “was harassed online for months,” according to The Baltimore Sun.

"When we do hear rumors like threats…we get the police department involved right away," said Burnett. "We’ve been talking about this Facebook thing for a long time," said Burnett of having a staff person authorized to access the social media sites on campus.

Renee Foose, the new superintendent for HCPSS, said the school system is taking bullying very seriously.

“We put a heavy emphasis on anti-bullying initiatives,” said Foose in an email to Patch.

Last week, before school started, student services staff had training focused on eliminating bullying, said Foose, who noted students are part of the solution as well.

“Students are encouraged to anonymously report suspicious behavior or postings on social media,” said Foose.

In the event of a dangerous situation, schools have emergency response plans that they update each year, said Foose, noting that staff is trained in emergency lockdown situations.

“We are terribly saddened by the incident that occurred at Perry Hall High School yesterday. Based on media reports, it appears the school staff responded swiftly, which may have saved lives,” said Foose.

A guidance counselor at Perry Hall High School reportedly subdued a 15-year-old student who shot another student Monday, according to , which reports that bullying was not a factor. 

After the incident in Perry Hall, which occurred Monday morning, Howard County police and school security teams communicated about the shooting.

“We were in contact with our school resource officers to get an idea if there’s something we should be looking out for in those situations,” said Burnett. 

Added Burnett: “It’s hard to prevent a tragedy, but if we can do everything we can, that’s what we’re going to do."

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Jack August 29, 2012 at 03:53 AM
Kevin Burnett, coordinator of security for the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), said that a staff member at each school has been authorized to look into potential situations arising out of social media. I have to ask who in each school has been authorized to do this, what qualifies them and what of other privacy issues? I hate to be the one to ask. jack
KRead August 29, 2012 at 11:42 AM
An individual's privacy settings on Facebook & Twitter will determine what the school can and cannot see. Young people tend to have very public pages with most content able to be viewed by the general public.
sharon gilbert August 30, 2012 at 12:16 AM
This seems to open the school system up to liability if the "authorized staff member" misses a legitimate threat or misinterprets an innocent statement.
Christine McComas September 20, 2012 at 01:27 PM
This is Grace McComas' mother.... Jack, that's a fair question...as I understand it (via a friend, very un-official), the principal and SRO (on-site HCPD officer) could look. They are not just going to troll for information.... But in our case, the bully was literally ending tweets with death threats, and I told the counselor and SRO and asked if he could look just to verify it was there, but he was unable to do that due to school firewalls, which by the way, all the kids know how to get around.

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