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WAFF 48 Investigates: Social Net Watcher

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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

Students use Facebook like a playground. And on that playground, you can see a lot of things, including bullying and threats. Now, there's a new product on the market called Social Net Watcher, with the goal of acting as a supervisor on that playground.

Last December, 750 Sparkman High students stayed home from school after a possible threat spread like wildfire on Twitter and other social media. It turned out to be an overreaction to a rumor and no mention of guns or weapons.

A month later in Tucson, Arizona, though, two students reportedly threatened several students on Facebook, saying they were going to shoot up Flowing Wells High School. That threat could have been missed easily, but a parent reported it to police.

"It's because a student was sitting with another student and laughing and saying can you believe this kid said he's going to kill everyone," said Bruce Canal, President and CEO of Social Net Watcher. "Then, a parent catches wind of it and she either calls the news media, law enforcement or the superintendent. We think our program is much faster because the school administration is going to get it in real time."

Canal's seen it before. He's a retired state trooper, and he's spent the last three decades in security. Now, he's designed new web-based software called Social Net Watcher, which can scan students' Facebook pages. 

"We scan for phrases of a bullying nature, violence nature or a suicidal nature of the students that attend their school district," said Canal.

So, if you post something that falls into those categories like "I will kill them all", that post gets sent, in real time, to school administrators. 

"We are not reading any students' Facebook postings," said Canal. "We are scanning for the phrases in the database."

Canal set up a fake Facebook account to show us Social Net Watcher in action. He posted the phrase "Stop the bullying. I can't take it anymore."  And within a minute, he got an e-mail, like a school superintendent would, alerting him of the potential threat.

Canal thinks his software might have prevented the shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio last year, when 17-year-old T. J. Lane shot five students, killing three of them. 

"He had 11 postings, 30 days in advance of the time he shot three kids and shot two others at Chardon High School," said Canal. "Of those 11, we had ten matches. Social Net Watcher would have caught this kid."

Canal's group contracts with school districts. Then, they go into schools, show students a video and then ask them to sign up voluntarily. I contacted several school districts in the valley, and none of them are considering Social Net Watcher right now.

But just to gauge reaction, we asked some Bob Jones High seniors what they thought.

"Let's say the student that's committing or doing such things is posting bad things or doing threats," said senior Payton Strickland. "If they don't sign up, how are you supposed to find out that they're actually posting?"

Three years ago, Madison City Schools partnered with Madison Police for the text to protect program. It allows students to call, text or e-mail any concerns they have about they see and hear in school.

"I think it is helpful because it's for people who are afraid to personally go out to a teacher or administrator to tell them what they know," said senior Carolynn Reynolds. 

You can learn more about Social Net Watcher at their official site.

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