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Digital Fly software aims to help schools detect, prevent bullying

Derek Peterson, Digital Fly's founder and chief technology

Derek Peterson, Digital Fly's founder and chief technology officer, in an undated photo. The company is debuting software in September 2015 that allows school administrators to monitor social media posts for possible put-downs and threats. Credit: David L. Pokress

A Long Island startup is offering schools a digital solution to short-circuit bullying and violence.

Digital Fly, based in Hauppauge, is debuting software this month that allows school administrators to monitor social media posts for terms such as "gun," "shoot," "fat," "ugly" and other possible put-downs and threats.

"You can find a whole lot just by reading what people are posting," said Derek Peterson, the company's founder and chief technology officer. "This gives the administrators a chance to have deeper insight into the student body."

The program's rollout comes as schools on Long Island and elsewhere are grappling with how to address online bullying and threats. School officials are increasingly interested in using data-analysis to tackle the problem, but many are concerned about balancing student privacy and safety, said Kelly J. Calhoun, an analyst who tracks education software for Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Connecticut, research firm.

"There are several products out there that do this," Calhoun said. "And there is a lot of debate going on among school districts about whether this is something they want to do."

The key for software makers, Calhoun said, is finding the line between protecting students and prying into their every online move.

Digital Fly has tried to strike that balance by not tracking individual student accounts. Rather, the software uses geolocation to monitor all posts on Twitter and Instagram within 10 miles of a school. (The company plans to eventually add other social media sites.)

Say, for instance, that a school includes "beat up" as one of its search terms. Administrators will be alerted the moment anyone within 10 miles fires off a tweet or Instagram caption saying, "I'm going to beat you up on the playground today."

The alert would include the sender's Twitter or Instagram handle and show the exact location where the post was published. Based on that information, administrators could opt to alert police, call parents, address the matter themselves, or determine that the post is harmless.

The service also offers a tip line for students to report behavior anonymously.

Digital Fly, which has five employees, is a spinoff of Intelligent Product Solutions, a Hauppauge engineering firm that has designed products for, among others, Motorola, Zebra Technologies Corp., and PepsiCo. Earlier this year, IPS launched a program to mentor local technology startups.

Digital Fly has been developing the software for two years and began a pilot program in June at John Adams High School in Jamaica, Queens. The company also has a contract to market the program to schools in Nassau County.

Digital Fly prices the software based on a school's enrollment, charging $1.75 to $3 per student. The company plans to market the program to elementary, junior high and high schools.

Mike Richez, who is distributing the software through OSC World, a Lynbrook-based educational technology company, said schools have grown accustomed to combing the Internet for clues after incidents occur. But this software, he said, allows them to spot potential trouble before it starts.

"It's really a preventive tool," said Richez, who was director of technology for the City of Long Beach school system from 1999 to 2011.

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