Is student monitoring software the best solution for child safety?

With a shortage of school counselors and incidents of self-harm and violence toward others surging post-pandemic, some school districts are interested in online monitoring services that can keep administrators ahead of the curve.

Post-pandemic, students in k12 schools are at a higher risk of experiencing harm in and outside of the classroom. According to this report, students have seen a 51% uptick in threats related to suicide and self-harm during the 2021-2022 school year compared to the year before, and a dizzying 152% jump in incidents regarding violence toward others.

School resources are strained. The American School Counselor Association claimed per their latest report that for every school counselor there is 408 students he or she is responsible for, on a national average. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio.

With significant jumps in incidents that involve harmful student behaviors, coupled with a substantial shortage in school counselors, it is no wonder that 83% of K12 parents, educators, and administrators are worried about student mental health and violence in their schools.

“You cannot ignore the fact that students are struggling with depression. There are school shootings on what seems a biweekly basis. And there are oftentimes signs of these things,” says Jack Bostian, tech director at Almont Community Schools in Michigan. “If you can take steps to protect your kids, it’s worth every single penny.”

As students increasingly prioritize interfacing with the internet to learn and socialize, digital safety solutions services are becoming administrators’ new line of defense.

At least three different companies that specialize in online student safety attended the Future of Education and Technology Conference in New Orleans this past January. Among them were Netsweeper, Lightspeed Systems, and GoGuardian.

“What are kids doing online?” asks Ryan Keag, director of safety sales at Lightspeed Systems, at FETC 2023. “Realistically, kids are much more comfortable communicating and existing in an online world than they are talking face to face. So what kind of communication and collaboration are they having with their friends? What are they searching for online? This helps us paint a much more accurate picture of the struggles these kids have and the kind of help they need.”

Schools already have CIPA-mandated firewalls that filter out dangerous websites in broad strokes, but these digital safety solutions use data-driven machine learning algorithms to categorize billions of websites, which gives administrators the ability to customize content filters to a granular level, granting them control to update keywords and content to look out for that suggest risky online behavior.

And while content filtering can shield students from harmful content out in the ether of the internet, these services also provide monitoring solutions that can detect harmful student behavior in real-time, allowing administrators to react to a threat of suicide the moment it is searched on a browser, communicated via email or document, or even picked up on a chat forum. Netsweeper has onGuard, LightSpeed Systems has Alert, and GoGuardian has Beacon, which Jack Bostian, a tech director in Michigan’s Almont community schools, believes is the best solution out there by far.

“If the district came to me tomorrow and told me the budget is cut and we’re getting rid of GoGuardian to save money, I would say ‘OK, here is my resignation,'” he said. “I’ve already sold GoGuardian to two different schools.”

Before Tracy Clements became the student safety subject matter expert for GoGuardian, she was a director of school counseling in a district that had a “major suicide problem.” In fact, she says, their suicide rates were 30 times the national average. She was skeptical of an online solution because she didn’t believe she was “techy” enough. When she finally relented to using the product, it only took three weeks for her to realize it’s use when GoGuardian Beacon flagged a student’s web browser actively planning a suicide.

“I couldn’t reach her parents, so I just drove to her house, and when I knocked on the door she remembered me from school, and I said, ‘Do you know why I’m here?’ and she just started crying and said, ‘I was about to kill myself,'” Clements remembers. “She was literally on the cusp of killing herself, and I wouldn’t have known, and I wouldn’t have been able to intervene if it weren’t for Beacon. I’m a believer.”

For Bostian’s district, GoGuardian alerted him and his team last year of over 400 instances involving mental health crises – whether it be active suicide planning, ideation, self-harm, requesting help and support, suicide research – and instances involving guns and bombs, violent acts, and bullying.

Aside from this service’s ability to react to a major crisis, Clements believes that the strongest attribute of this service is its ability to detect troubling student behavior “higher upstream,” that is, before it gets to such a drastic level.

“Prevention is so much less costly than intervention,” she notes.

There are still those who are fearful of the implications of a student monitoring service, citing Big Brother, for example.

Emily Spadafore, public relations manager for GoGuardian cited that around every other student in the public education system has been touched by a GoGuardian product.

“We understand the criticisms, but we are open to having those conversations and are happy to answer any questions anyone has around specific privacy or data policies,” said Spadafore.

Still, nearly 90% of K12 parents believe school technology should be implemented in the classroom, and they are equally supportive of their school system using online educational technology to help detect signs of a student considering harming themselves or harming others.

And for Bostian, he sees the technology as a no-brainer.

“It’s required in this day and age for kids.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a DA staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

Most Popular