Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District purchased a technology service to monitor social media for threats of school shootings and suicides, years before a gunman killed 19 children and two adults Tuesday.
The monitoring service, called Social Sentinel, says it uses sophisticated AI to scan over a billion posts a day for threats of violence. The service is used widely across the state, but it’s unclear whether it would have been effective in alerting Uvalde to the shooter’s posts.
It’s unclear whether the district still uses the service. Representatives from Uvalde CISD did not immediately respond to The Dallas Morning News’ questions about whether its Social Sentinel contract is active.
Uvalde is among at least 52 school districts and three colleges in Texas that have used the Social Sentinel service, according to records from GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending. It has also been used by dozens of colleges and hundreds of school districts nationwide.
Uvalde purchased Social Sentinel in August 2019, according to GovSpend. A document from the 2019-2020 school year lists the service as one of the district’s “preventative security measures.”
“UCISD utilizes Social Sentinel to monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” the document reads.
The district made two payments to the company totaling more than $9,900, the data show.
Several Texas districts that have used Social Sentinel complained the service was mostly ineffective. The News reached out to every school district that used Social Sentinel, including Uvalde, for comment last year. Clear Creek ISD, a district outside of Houston, used the service in the 2018-19 school year, but soon canceled.
“The Clear Creek Independent School District discontinued the use of Social Sentinel in its first year,” Elaina Polsen, Clear Creek’s chief communications officer, told The News last year. “The District determined the service just did not meet our needs and we were receiving far stronger information through our anonymous tip line.”
Representatives from Keller, Lewisville, Mineral Wells and Schertz-Cibolo school districts also said the service provided them with few alerts or alerts that contained mostly irrelevant information.
Some schools contacted by The News said the service was helpful. Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, said officials used it several times to intervene before students harmed themselves.
In an interview with The News in February, the CEO of Social Sentinel parent company Navigate360 defended the service.
“We’ve seen school staff and law enforcement liaison show up at a house and stop the kids from killing themselves,” JP Guilbault said. The service also has been used to identify bomb threats, “sexual aggression” and bullying, he said.
Navigate360 did not immediately respond to request for comment for this story.
Even if authorities had been alerted to the potential threat, they may not have been able to prevent the violence from taking place. NBC News reported last month that the FBI had interviewed a man who wrote online that he was “plotting [a] mass shooting” and looking for “weapons that are good for killing a lot of people within a budget,” a year before he carried out a school shooting in Aztec, New Mexico. The FBI was also alerted to the Parkland shooter’s intent to kill others and “disturbing social media posts” more than a month before he killed 17 people and injured 17 others.
Some Texas politicians and legal experts have supported schools’ use of the technology but others have raised privacy concerns about the proliferation of monitoring services in schools.
“It’s been a reaction to absolutely just unfortunate and deadly school shootings and mass violence,” Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican from Southlake, told The News last year. “But what we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Do we have to create such a big dragnet that affects everyone’s civil liberties?’”
State police said that the 18-year-old gunman entered Robb Elementary School after a car chase with authorities, and began shooting.
Tuesday’s massacre was the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, behind Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults died.
In Uvalde, two adults, the shooter and 19 children were killed.