Harris County school safety teams, law enforcement arm against threats with digital sleuthing skills

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January 21, 2022 by HCDE-Texas

HCDE’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools hosted 26 school safety team members and law enforcement officials for a two-day Digital Threat Assessment Training this week presented by Safer Schools Together, a professional training agency whose mission is to end all school violence.

Attendees hailed from 11 school districts and multiple organizations across Harris County, including Houston Independent School District, Harris County Sherriff’s Office, the Harris County judicial system, and San Jacinto College.

Safer Schools Together Director of Training Greg Gerber leads attendees in Digital Threat Assessment Training, January 19, 2022.

With the right skills, students’ thoughts can be tracked through their actions online, says Safer Schools Together Director of Training Greg Gerber.

“The more that our kids work with technology, the more they’re indicating what they’re thinking [and revealing] the influences in their life,” said Gerber. “Those cues can help us move towards intervention and be proactive in ensuring that [a] violent act doesn’t take place. Digital threat assessment is that golden ticket.”

The training aimed to equip safety professionals with a solid understanding of all the data necessary to assess an individual’s potential for violence, whether in the form of self-harm or harm to others. In doing so, attendees gained knowledge and resources to help them establish a baseline for digital behavior and recognize marked changes in behavior.

Gerber, who also serves as the Associate Dean of the New York Institute of Technology Master of Instructional Technology program and the Director of the Vancouver Centre for Teaching and Learning, says that the first thing to recognize is that nobody simply “snaps.” There is a pathway to violence tread over time, and during that time, students “leak.” They provide information about what is happening in their minds, and much of it happens on their favorite social networks.

The topics covered included best practices for research and documentation, the power of search engines and cached digital data, and recognizing obscure but significant meanings behind social media trends.

In one session, participants worked through a series of simulations using Google’s search engine and Boolean operators, simple words or symbols used to connect and define the relationship between search terms. Gerber explained the significance of quotation marks, “minus” (-), “and” (+), “or” (|), “site:,” brackets, and proper syntax—the arrangement of words, phrases, and symbols—when used in a Google search. With Boolean operators, school safety teams can find a lot of information with few details.

Center for Safe and Secure Schools Digital Threat Assessment workshop, January 19, 2022.

Houston ISD Department of Leadership Development Senior Manager Lauren Ford says the session helped her connect old habits and techniques with new ones.

“The connection that I’ve made today is an eye-opener and something that I can immediately share with leaders, and they can immediately implement,” said Ford.

In another session, attendees saw examples of concerning social media trends, focusing on a 2020 TikTok trend in which youth used the seemingly innocuous hashtags “#ShampooAndConditioner” and “#IAtePasta” as a cry for help for mental health concerns. The hashtags represent two reasons referenced in pop culture for why someone with suicidal thoughts chose not to take their own life.

To stay ahead of trends, Gerber recommended TagDef.com, which provides definitions of common and trending hashtags.

Digital threat assessment, both a science and an art, is something every school administrator or law enforcement official should learn, says Gerber. The task may appear daunting, but Gerber hopes the training will leave attendees inspired and well-equipped to act. 

“The most useful takeaway is understanding that we are able to make a difference,” said Gerber. “By engaging in this understanding, leaning on relationships, [and] fostering positive community climate and culture, we can absolutely make a difference.”

To learn more about HCDE’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools or Digital Threat Assessment Training, visit hcde-texas.org/safe-secure-schools or contact Janice Owolabi at jowolabi@hcde-texas.org.

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