May 10 2024

Technology-Powered Mental Health Initiatives Save Students’ Lives

K–12 districts use monitoring technology to scan students’ online behavior for signs of distress, proactively improving school safety.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act mandates that schools must use content filters to protect students from explicit content. But Nathan Short, IT director at Encinitas Union School District in California, doesn’t care if he gets an alert about students trying to search explicit content. “I just want it to be blocked,” he says. “I started retooling the content filter to trigger on self-harm-related keywords.”

The initiative started as a passion project for Short, who notes that he has lost friends to suicide and finds it invaluable to keep students safe. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of every department; a big focus in our school district is social-emotional health,” he says.

Encinitas Union School District has been a one-to-one district for years, and it notifies families at the start of the school year that student activity will be monitored on school-owned devices. “The responses have been overwhelmingly positive,” Short says. When content monitoring has compelled the district to reach out to families, “it’s most often shock from the parents and gratitude because they would have never known their child was struggling,” he says.

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Since first trying to retool the district’s existing content filter six years ago, Short has been able to invest in technologies built for the purpose of monitoring student behavior online for self-harm — and it’s paid off, having saved multiple students’ lives.

Capture and Flag Troubling Student Behavior Online

While some monitoring technologies capture only what students are searching in a web browser, Lightspeed Systems’ Lightspeed Alert — the tool Encinitas Union School District is currently using — works like a keylogger, capturing everything students type. This allows the district to identify potentially harmful content in applications like Google Docs, which Short says students are using as a communication tool.

Students can share documents with their classmates and type messages to one another in that document, he explains. “They’re pretty good about deleting what they’ve written, but the technology captures everything.”

DISCOVER: Technology enables collaboration on K–12 student projects.

When the team gets an alert about something potentially harmful, it can look at a document and — even if students have deleted the messages — the version history and the Lightspeed Systems technology have a record of what was typed.

Identify False Positives and Escalate Concerns

The Student Risk Module, part of the iboss zero-trust secure access service edge platform, “proactively identifies risks related to student threats to self-harm, threats to harm others, threats to the school and academic integrity by using advanced data analysis and customizable keyword alerts,” says Richard Quinones, senior vice president public sector at iboss. The company’s platform works in conjunction with Gaggle Safety Management to identify false positives and flag alerts that need immediate attention.

“If the team classifies it as a questionable content search, the alert will be emailed to the school or district,” Quinones says. With the power of 24/7 oversight and human scrutiny, today’s technologies weed out false positives fairly accurately.

At Encinitas Union School District, the team has dealt with everything from the release of the “Suicide Squad” movie to student reports on the death of Vincent Van Gogh.

However, “if anyone has any doubt whatsoever, we escalate it,” Short says.

The first step at the district is to reach out to principals, and sometimes teachers, to find out if the students are researching something that has triggered an alert. “Teachers know their students,” Short says. “Getting that extra little bit of information can let you know if a child might need some help.”

A 2021 report from the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center examined 67 averted school attack plots. Forty-seven percent of plotters researched prior attacks, security measures, other related topics or a combination of those things.

When it’s determined that a student needs assistance or an intervention, the district has a team of psychologists assigned to the school sites. “They’re ready and trained to respond to those types of things,” Short says. “I’m not — I just handle the technical side.”

That team then contacts the parents or guardians of the student to get them help.

nathan short
It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of every department; a big focus in our school district is social-emotional health.”

Nathan Short IT Director, Encinitas Union School District

Save Students’ Lives with Immediate Intervention

In the past, trying to reach a student’s family hasn’t always been easy for the team at Encinitas Union School District. “A child who was being cared for by grandparents was at risk and actually planning to hang themselves,” Short recalls. It was late at night, and the grandparents weren’t answering the school’s calls. “More often than not, nobody’s picking up their cellphone when they’re getting calls late at night from an unidentified phone number.”

Thankfully, a staff member lived nearby and was able to go to the home, knock on the door and alert the grandparents to the situation, saving the student’s life.

“If the response time hadn’t been so rapid, we would have immediately called 911,” Short says. With the alert system the district has in place now, “if a member of the team does not respond to an alert from the 24/7 monitoring service within five minutes, that monitoring service is calling 911.”

LEARN MORE: These are the three key features of a school alert system.

Short also remembers an incident where the district didn’t have five minutes to spare. “Twenty minutes before dismissal, the child was searching for, first, the fastest way to kill themselves, followed by nearby tall buildings, nearby cliffs,” he says. “Encinitas has a lot of cliffs along the ocean within walking distance of schools. Then they looked up a map route on how to get to a nearby cliff. All this is happening while the clock is ticking.”

Alerted to the student’s alarming searches, the team immediately worked on tracking down the device to find out who it was checked out to. They had to find out what school and what classroom the child was in, and they had to get to them before dismissal.

Once again, the immediate actions of the team following an alert saved a student’s life.

Detect and Stop Bullying Among K–12 Students

Bullying prevention is another benefit to the district’s monitoring technologies. In the U.S. Secret Service report, 21 percent of individuals plotting a school attack did so because of bullying by their peers.

“Often, teachers will address a bullying issue without even alluding to the technology,” Short says. They don’t point out to the students where they saw the behavior occurring, and teachers are able to address it in early stages.

Source: U.S. Secret Service, “Averting Targeted School Violence: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Plots Against Schools,” March 2021

The district’s focus on teaching digital citizenship and integrating social-emotional well-being into instruction has taught students the value of online and personal safety. “Conversations about how the kids are feeling are commonplace now,” Short says.

The National Center for Education Statistics found that 69 percent of public schools reported that the percentage of students who had sought mental health services from school had increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. “Without early detection, these issues can escalate and lead to potential tragedies in schools,” Quinones says.

There are resources other schools can use to implement these safety measures in their own classrooms and technology. “It’s just a matter of getting school districts to take that first step,” Short notes. “Sometimes there are costs associated with it, and public schools don’t have a lot of money, but the dividends are priceless.”

KEEP READING: How can the COPS SVPP grant fund school safety?

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