4 Key Takeaways From K-12 Technology Leader Panel Discussion Focused On Student Mental Health and Safety
Online safety risks, such as explicit websites, cyberbullying, and violent content were already becoming an issue in K-12 learning technology before COVID-19 necessitated remote learning. But, as both Toni McPherson and Bob Boyd shared during last week’s panel discussion, the move to remote learning supercharged the risks significantly. It’s also had a lasting impact that has shifted the need for technology-enabled safety monitoring in their school districts, and in schools all across the country.
Here, we’re going to recap some of the main take-aways from the discussion. You can also watch the full webinar recording for free here (no forms).
1. Technology is an important part of district mental health and safety programs
“Tech has become the common denominator,” Toni shared. “Kids are now doing everything online and it’s opened a can of worms. Like most districts, we lost that kind of ‘brick-and-mortar’ safety net where teachers and other school building staff were able to see things that were going on with students. The ‘brick-and-mortar’ became the devices, and my tech department was suddenly seeing all these issues happening on the devices that, frankly, we’re just not trained for.”
Toni and her team are certainly not alone. This is something that we’ve been hearing from nearly every education tech department. Leaders are working hard to find the right balance between keeping students safe in school-provided technology, and also not being too heavy-handed when it comes to issues related to surveillance and privacy.
While the problem awareness largely coincided with pandemic-related school closures, it certainly hasn’t ended there.
“We’ve seen similar changes [as Toni] because of the amount of time students are spending in virtual learning,” Bob added. “We’ve seen an uptick in bullying and other inappropriate behaviors. If we didn’t have the technology we have with ManagedMethods, and other partners we use, there is no way that our staff of five could keep up. We have our devices and access well locked-down when students are in the school building and on our network, but when they go home it’s different.”
2. The nature of student safety is changing
Both Toni and Bob shared that their technology is flagging cries for help—both veiled and fairly explicit. An element that they both have noticed is that online monitoring has sometimes guided students’ behavior.
One example Bob shared involves students who are part of an inappropriate chat or similar situation in their school-provided Google apps. “We’ve been able to see an incident occur where one or more student is saying or sharing things that they know they shouldn’t be doing. Another student or students will chime in and tell them to stop it because they know it isn’t right. It’s similar to when that type of interaction happens in the classroom or during recess. You want to be able to correct that bad behavior, and you also want to be able to reward the good behavior. Being able to positively reinforce that good digital citizenship, particularly when it’s peer-to-peer like that, is great for our students.”
Toni agreed and has experienced similar interactions in her district’s Google apps and other technologies. “Our students know about the tools we’re using and they’ve started self-reporting things. Things like if they’re being bullied or see others being bullied, if they’ve heard about a fight, things like that. They know there’s a good chance that we’ve picked up on it and it relieves some of that responsibility from them so they don’t feel like they’ll be labeled a ‘snitch’ by their peers.”
Both Bob and Toni have experienced more veiled cries for help when it comes to metal health, physical wellbeing, self-harm, and similar types of needs that require help from trained professionals. In those cases, they’re grateful to have the technology to pick up on students who are writing about wanting to take their own life, for example, and quickly send the information to trained mental health services that can get the student the resources they need.
In fact, one audience member even chimed in that they had a similar experience with a staff member who was struggling during the pandemic. ManagedMethods picked up on the suicide signals and alerted the admin to it. They were able to get the information to the appropriate resources that, they believe, probably saved that person’s life.
3. Technology leaders need to work with school resources to respond to mental health and safety crises
Toni and Bob agreed that the kind of response that a tech alert needs will vary based on the type and severity of the incident being detected. No matter what technology, or technologies, you use, there are going to be false positives. Then, there are going to be incidents that don’t require an immediate response and might be best handled by a prinipal, for example.
In more severe and/or time-sensitive situations, a crisis response team will be necessary and you need to be prepared for that.
“At my district, the technology department is the first to receive all alerts and we start the investigation using all of our tech monitoring tools to try to build the story,” Toni shared. “If needed, we escalate it to a crisis response team depending on the type of alert and the severity of the situation. Our crisis response team can include resources such as administrative staff, counselors, and our district police department.”
Bob explained that he has a similar process. “We have four technologies that we’re using to cover safety monitoring. The technology team is the first to review three of them, while the fourth is a severe situation alert type of tool and those will go directly to the principal. Depending on the severity of the alert, we have a School Resource Officer (SRO) that may need to get involved during certain hours. We also work with our county Sheriff’s Office to help cover off-hours response to high-severity alerts.”
4. Communication and community are keys to balancing privacy and safety concerns
Bob and Toni acknowledged the concerns that some stakeholders have regarding this type of monitoring technology and student privacy.
This is certainly an issue that is being played out in public discord, with recent reports analyzing the benefits and risks of such program. The Center for Democracy and Technology recently reported that a majority of parents and teachers believe that the benefits outweigh the risks, while half of students feel the same way. Of particular concern is how surveillance impacts students who are low-income, minority, and/or LGBTQ+.
Like many stakeholders in this discussion, at the end of the day, districts are responsible for maintaining the safety and security of their property. Even when that property extends to devices and online tools that may be used outside of physical school property. In many cases, schools are legally bound by state laws and/or policies, a common example being anti-bullying regulations.
“Communication with your staff, students, and community is key,” Bob explained. “When we first went one-to-one, we had multiple parent open houses where parents were welcomed to come and ask me any questions that they had about what technology we’re providing to students, how they can use it, what we’re doing to protect them, and more. We’ve been a one-to-one district for nine years now, so we don’t have to do as many of those meetings as we used to, but we do still hold them from time to time. Our parents appreciate them because they’re able to get answers to their questions and have their voices heard.”
“We’re very transparent with our community about what we’re doing in this area. I always tell my students—and their parents—that I’m not surveilling anyone. Our technology is monitoring and you’re not going to be on my radar until you’re on my radar,” agreed Toni. “We have an obligation to protect our property and everyone on it. So, my advice to others is to know your laws, and check your funding sources because many times they’re going to have their own requirements. Then, establish what your property boundary is. Anything that happens within that boundary—whether it’s physical or virtual—is representing the district and we have responsibilities there.”
The risks that students are facing online, both in using personal and school-provided technologies, are real and varied. The stories shared by Toni and Bob during the live panel discussion, as well as those from many, many other district leaders are often shocking and heartbreaking. We all have to remember that just because things are happening online, doesn’t mean that it’s not impacting students, families, and communities in very real, very physical and emotional ways.