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Schools track students' social media for signs of extremism

Australian schools are watching their students' every move on school-supplied computers or tablets to spot signs of radicalisation.

UE - Australian schools are watching their students' every move on school-supplied computers or tablets to spot signs of radicalisation.

Melbourne High School and and Kilvington Grammar School in Victoria are among at least a dozen schools in Australia which are using a surveillance tool from cyber security company Netbox Blue, to detect signs of political extremism.

At least 400 schools in Australia are monitoring their students' iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media sites and Google searches for signs of cyber bullying, self-harm and other anti-social behaviour.

The tool alerts principals and wellbeing officers when students use keywords which have been identified by the school as being linked to dangerous activity.

It intercepts messages from extremist groups or sexual predators as they groom vulnerable students.

Computers provided by the school are tracked at all times, including out of school hours. And any device connected to the school's central system on campus is monitored.

Melbourne High School principal Jeremy Ludowyke said parents and students were aware of the tracking system, which he said enabled the school to take advantage of the "educational benefits" of the internet, "while still controlling the seamier side of what's out there online".

"Schools realise we need to respond to this [threat of radicalisation] more now than they did five years ago," he said.
"We probably all realise that what's available online simply reflects the forever changing nature of the social milieu ... it would be fair to say that this is a more recent issue."

Acting Principal of Kilvington Grammar School Teresa Deshon said schools were awaiting further guidance from the Education Department on how to deal with signs of extremism at school.

She said the software was not the only way the school sought to education students about radicalisation.

"Education is key, and we offer education around radicalisation and extremism in the classroom."

Education Minister James Merlino said the government was working with experts to produce guidelines for schools on identifying behaviours associated with violence extremism, but the guidelines would not be released to the public.

Mr Merlino told Fairfax Media in June there was "no doubt" more teenagers and members of their family were being recruited to fight for IS overseas.

When questioned on Thursday about the risk in schools, the minister's spokesman said there was "no evidence that students are being targeted at school."

In February, the department appointed a senior adviser to work with government and non-government schools to promote racial and religious tolerance and social cohesion.

Regional offices across the state have been working with their counterparts in Victoria Police to provide advice and support to schools.

But Monash University's counter-terrorism expert Professor Greg Barton said schools and communities were generally inexperienced in dealing with extremism. He said software that protected students from predators was a good start.

"In the earlier stages, you see more open exchanges and curiosity-driven searches and if the system works well, it will pick it up before the kids are in the danger zone."

A Victorian Education Department spokesman said the department was advising schools with at-risk student populations on ways to support vulnerable students.

Netbox Blue chief marketing officer Peter Geale said the service enabled early intervention in cases where a youth was being radicalised.

"This gives the school the ability to engage with the parents and counsellors early on, rather than waiting until they are at customs to stop a person as they're trying to leave the country."

Mr Geale said the system had successfully intercepted a message sent from a sexual predators to a teenage girl on Facebook, when the student was using her school laptop at home.

It had also alerted a school when a student was buying illicit drugs online.

Victorian Student Representative Council spokesman Spencer Davis said it was important that schools performed "some form of monitoring" during school hours, but surveillance should not extend beyond the parameters of the school.

"What happens outside of the school should be the responsibility of the parents, not the school."

Vice president of the Australian Principals Federation Julie Podbury said schools without online tracking systems were well equipped with welfare teams to monitor students' behaviour.