Apr 06 2018

Web Filters Help Keep Students Safe

District in Missouri already has halted four potential problems using Chrome plug-in.

Given the recent tragic events in Parkland, Fla., as well as similar events at schools around the country, student safety is foremost on every educator’s mind.

Morgan County R-1 School District in Stover, Mo., has added a new tool to its collection of safety instruments — Lightspeed Systems’ Relay. In use less than a year, Relay has already helped Morgan County avoid four potential crisis situations.

Located 120 miles southeast of Kansas City, the rural district features a single K–12 school with roughly 800 students. Last year, the district began rolling out a one-to-one computing program for grades two through 12 using Google Chromebooks from HP, Lenovo and Samsung.

Last summer, it decided to adopt Relay, a Google Chrome plug-in that allows teachers and administrators to manage all student Chromebooks from a single dashboard.

Using Relay, teachers can monitor student activity in real time, record and broadcast lessons to each machine, and remotely lock machines when they need their students’ full attention. Administrators can use it to filter websites, identify high-risk activity and locate lost or stolen devices.

But Morgan also uses the tech from Lightspeed Systems to continuously scan student emails, searches, Google Hangouts and G Suite documents for keywords that could be early warning signs of trouble — for example, any conversations involving weapons, shootings or suicide, says Technology Director William McCauley.

The school’s resource officer (SRO) uses Relay constantly, he says; reports are also sent to McCauley and the school superintendent.

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Web Filtering Improves School Security

Since installing Lightspeed, school officials have already identified four potential threats — two cases of self-inflicted harm, and two others where students were making threats against the school. One of these incidents recently led to the arrest of a high school student, McCauley says.

Web filtering is becoming an increasingly important part of a school’s defense strategy, says Michael Dorn, executive director for Safe Havens International, which helps K–12 schools across the globe improve their security.

“It will better enable schools to detect external threats, not just from students, but people in the community who are posting information that might involve the school or district,” he says.

But web filtering is not without flaws. Given the speed at which teenagers create new jargon, for example, keeping the keyword list up to date can be a challenge, McCauley admits. One of the resources the district relies upon is the Urban Dictionary.

“Our SRO is also our in-school suspension teacher, so while he’s watching the kids during ISS he’s also looking for new keywords to put in there,” says McCauley.

Web filters can also produce a lot of false positives, which can put an additional strain on school resources, notes Dorn.

“You might get 10 to 15 hits for a school district with 10,000 kids,” he says. “Who’s going to investigate all of those?”

Jared Bellis, the district’s after-school program director, says that’s true at Morgan R-1 as well. For example, if there’s a biology class teaching about plants and weeds, or a health class about preventing tobacco and alcohol abuse, Lightspeed might categorize these as drug-related conversations.

“We have to check them all,” he says. “Most of the time when we investigate, the kid was just being a kid, but you have to look into every one. Hopefully, this system will prevent tragedies like others have faced.”

The reaction from parents has been mostly positive, says Bellis.

“They all know we have a new system and are monitoring the students more closely,” he says. “You get a few that don’t like the whole ‘Big Brother is watching you’ thing, but most understand the importance of it.”

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