While seeing a law enforcement presence on Texas highways is commonplace, no such luxury exists on the digital superhighway, prompting police and school officials to leave no threat unheeded.
After a Dallas-Fort Worth area teen’s tweet forced a heightened police presence at Brownwood High School last week, school officials and law enforcement have proven no precaution is an over precaution when it comes to student safety.
“Luckily, we do not have to communicate about serious things very often but every now and then things do pop up,” Brownwood Police Chief Terry Nichols. “The safety of our community’s children should be a top priority for our community and it takes all of us to do this … Many people engaged in acts of violence often broadcast in social media or by word of mouth by saying something to somebody.”
Monitoring social media networks for potential threats may conjure thoughts a school or police officer sitting in a dimly lit room scrolling through students’ social feeds, but Nichols and Brownwood ISD Superintendent Joe Young said no such position exists.
“We can’t afford to hire a third-party person or have third-party software to do all of the monitoring for us all of the time,” Nichols said. “Your big cities with intelligence centers have that kind of stuff. We have relationships with the state fusion center if they have something or hear something they will let us know. In a community our size, it goes back to the community at large to help protect each other and the children in our schools.”
Although school district and law enforcement officials will often use cursory searches using keywords or phrases related to the area, they mostly act when someone comes forward. Last week’s heightened police presence at BHS was one of those instances.
“We actually got it from a citizen that had a twitter feed about Brownwood and anything to do with Brownwood,” Nichols said. “He immediately called me and I did not answer so he called Officer (Fred) Bastardo. That got the ball going. Again, it was see something, say something. He saw this and knew that wasn’t right. It had enough question marks to say what is this? What does this mean? This is not normal. We got working on it from the investigative side quickly.”
Young also said he does not have a staff member dedicated to monitoring social media and instead must rely on teachers, staff and administrators to watch out for potential threats.
“It’s a group effort. We monitor daily what we can as far as things that have been tagged to the school district or Brownwood ISD or Brownwood High School,” Young said. “We certainly do not monitor students’ private social media, but we do have searches for key words through the school district to see if anything comes up. Most of the incidents the school gets involved with or notices are when it’s brought to our attention. Maybe a student or somebody posts something on their private page towards another student, those are things we investigate at that point that we normally wouldn’t see from just normal monitoring.”
Last summer, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 179, which requires school districts to adopt policies regarding online harassment, bullying and cyberbullying. This also allows students to anonymously report online threats.
“We talk a lot about what are our shared beliefs, our shared goals,” Young said. “Everyone wants our kids to be safe. All of our kids want to be safe at school. Once we talk about having a safe environment and keeping our kids safe at school, those outliers may pop up or that are out of the norm may rear their head, but everybody notices them. Even if it’s only one or two kids that notice that, we have the message out that they can say ‘Hey, this is wrong.’”