Iowa City schools receive funding to monitor student social media to prevent threats

The Iowa City Community School District was granted federal funding to support the district’s threat-assessment team in monitoring students’ social media.


Michael Guhin

The Iowa City Community School District sign is seen on Apr. 29, 2019.

Lauren White, News Reporter

The Iowa City Community School District has been granted federal funding to protect its students from internal threats by monitoring its social-media accounts and being alerted when a threat is identified.

In an attempt to prevent students from harming themselves or others, the school district was given a $187,000 federal grant to alert the threat-assessment team if a student participates in threatening behavior on social media. The district is currently looking into different methods of how to implement the funding.

Iowa City Community School District Assistant Superintendent Matt Degner said this new protocol will be implemented to prevent crisis.

“If students are threatening harm to themselves or the community, we hope to be aware of it ahead of time. That way, we can intervene and prevent a crisis from happening,” Degner said.

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The funding came from the Justice Department through its mission of crisis prevention to support law enforcement and public safety. These were earmarked funds to be used specifically for the exploration of social-media threat-assessment methods, Degner said.

The school board had recently discussed the establishment of a threat-assessment team to create a district-wide group of professionals who would work together to evaluate and neutralize threats made to schools or students.

This team was approved and implemented, and during one of the school board meetings, the safety and security team discussed different recommendations to prevent danger. The idea to use social media in this way was a popular recommendation from within the team, Degner said.

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“Primarily, any student conflicts or threats that we have at our schools have origin in social media,” Degner said. “Most communication is happening electronically, and we want to do what we can to make sure our students are safe.

The district does not want students’ privacy to be violated, so the team is figuring out how to balance that aspect, Degner said. Only school devices and accounts would be monitored, and all of the current legal standings such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act would need to be respected, he said.

Nancy Langguth, a clinical professor in the UI College of Education, said fostering trusting relationships is at the core of supporting student success in classrooms and the topic of monitoring social media is a sensitive topic.

“Assuming the software and algorithms used would be the monitoring of certain keywords and phrases, but not in personal messages, such a system holds potential for alerting adults to cyberbullying among students, signs of depression and suicidal thoughts, and other forms of abuse or violence,” Langguth said.

Director of Student Services Kate Callahan said the money would be broken up into funding a coordinator position, travel for various purposes, and training the technology of the social-media monitoring alert system.

“This will allow us to have trained teams that are very dedicated to early intervention and assessment,” Callahan said. “We could manage threat in a very proactive way and expedite resources to students who need them.”

Denger said the crisis-prevention team will now engage with the community and hear ideas to implement a system of monitoring.

“What we’re trying to do is avoid some traumatic situation from happening. We don’t want to overly monitor children, but we want to support our families and students when an event does happen,” Denger said. “… As a parent, I would want to know about any threats that would exist in my child’s social media.”