Feb 14 2020

Struggling Youths Get a ‘Beacon’ to Prevent Self-Harm

A new offering from education technology company GoGuardian alerts school officials to student online activity that may suggest suicidal intent.

Several years ago, shortly after implementing the cloud-based filtering and monitoring tool GoGuardian, the technology director at a private Los Angeles school got an unnerving alert.

A student was searching for information on suicide and related terms, including methods of self-harm. That once-private action prompted school officials to reach out to the student and provide much-needed support.

Similar interventions are playing out across the more than 10,000 schools that rely on GoGuardian as part of their technology programs.

“Schools play a vital role in a student’s life, not just in the quality of the learning and experiences, but also in the quantity of time spent in schools,” says Ellen Yan, the general manager and student wellness advocate at GoGuardian. “As a result, many are grappling with the fact that their student community is undergoing a shift in how they communicate with, see and interact with those around them in the advent of tech.”

DISCOVER: Technology can help educators identify students at risk and get them the help they need. Find out how with GoGuardian's solutions.

Beacon is GoGuardian’s suicide and self-harm alert service for schools. In Beacon’s prelaunch alone, school officials reported that 80 percent of at-risk notifications, which required action, were generated during school hours.

Beacon was designed in collaboration with K–12 district officials and leading mental health experts, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology. It offers real-time scans across the internet — covering online chats, social media, forums, searches, email and collaboration tools — for words and images that might indicate a student’s interest in self harm or hurting others. An advanced artificial intelligence platform allows the program to factor in the context of phrases and emotional insights to prevent false alarms.

Detecting Early Cries for Help with Data, Context

National statistics underscore the severity of the life-or-death situations Beacon addresses. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Americans ages 15 to 24 — an unfortunate trend that holds true across racial groups, according to the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That grim reality is one reason why some districts, such as the one in Los Angeles, are taking steps to monitor students’ online activity to potentially save lives.

Another incentive for schools: The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act ties E-rate discounts to schools and libraries that meet certain criteria, such as monitoring online safety and security, including email and chats.

Students today are digital natives who are used to sharing more of their lives and personal thoughts online. Many may turn to an online community to verbalize their pain — struggles they may feel uncomfortable sharing with their parents or teachers, Yan says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how GoGuardian helps school districts keep students from accessing harmful content on their devices.

Beacon’s filtering and monitoring provide insight into a student who may be struggling with their mental health and, ultimately, asking for help.

“As educators and administrators are keenly aware, they are caring for and educating students who are at an impressionable age and under immense pressure, especially today,” Yan says. “With increased pressure on children’s successful performance and the incredible access to information, content and resources through digital devices at students’ fingertips, we are seeing today’s students grow up in an ecosystem that we haven’t seen before.”

With that in mind, Beacon is designed to support a school’s existing suicide risk response plan, taking into account numerous warning signs of acute suicide risk, including those the American Association of Suicidology has identified for schools. With Beacon 24/7, one of three Beacon service options, the GoGuardian Safety Support Specialist team provides human review and escalation of active planning. GoGuardian also shares online a number of other resource materials that can be reviewed, downloaded and distributed within a school community.

“Many schools are stepping in to help support students’ mental health while on their educational journey,” Yan says.

Officials at schools that use Beacon often report how well the service is working, citing successful interventions that otherwise might not have been made, Yan says. That feedback, she says, is “fulfilling and rewarding, although sobering.”

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