Needles in a digital haystack: AI monitors social media for potential threats to Ohio schools

Local News

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — One of the responsibilities of the new Ohio School Safety Center will be to proactively scan social media and websites for threats to schools. Analysts will use enhanced technology to identify threat language and share the information with local law enforcement and school officials.

Some schools in Ohio already use private companies to perform social media scans.

Gary Margolis, CEO of Social Sentinel, says his company has contracts with school districts in 36 states including Ohio.

“Our artificial intelligence, our technology scans digital conversations, billions of social media posts as well as email and collaboration tools and identifies indicators of harm,” Margolis said. “We’ve built our technology to recognize indicators of violence, self-harm, harm against others and when it identifies that kind of trending conversation or specific conversation, it generates an alert that goes to our client for them to follow up on.”

Margolis says his company does not monitor, surveil or investigate. He said their software is looking for needles in a digital haystack but referenced research showing that 40 to 50 percent of school violence was conveyed on social media and email platforms before it happened.

“There’s this term called leakage, the idea that people are going to talk about doing bad things either to themselves or others before they do it,” Margolis said.

Emily Mayfield, administrator at the new Ohio School Safety Center, says analysts will take calls or texts on the SaferOH Tip Line: 844-SAFEROH (844-723-3764). The centralized tip line is considered critical to ensuring information sharing, prevention, and intervention but state officials say it has been underutilized.

Mayfield said analysts will also look for tips online.

“We use a couple of different sources o be able to scan social media platforms for threat language such as bomb, weapon, knife and tailored to schools specifically.” 

Mayfield says analysts will do an assessment of the threat and “communicate with local law enforcement, communicate with the school to get them up to date to see what resources they need from us to investigate further.”

At a news conference Wednesday to announce the new School Safety Center, Gov Mike DeWine said, “Having one office where the staff solely focuses on keeping our students safe and our schools secure, will allow analysts to nimbly assess threats, proactively address potential issues, and expertly train and support school faculty in a more streamlined manner.”

The new center will start operations August 22 with a staff of seven employees.

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