2020 has been tough for students and educators alike. Schools have been experiencing a mental health crisis for several years, with one in six youth living with a mental health condition. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the mental health struggles students face and has increased pressures on educators. 

Reports indicate that about 10 million students ages 13 to 18 require some level of professional mental health assistance.  Today’s education leaders understand that improving student mental health is as important as keeping students physically safe. Good mental health is critical for children to have success both in school and in life. But those who are struggling may not have access to the treatment they need.

Many schools are turning to a technology that helps educators proactively identify and support students who are struggling with mental health issues by monitoring the digital content students produce through their use of school platforms for email and schoolwork. These services use a combination of artificial intelligence and trained safety experts to provide real-time analysis and review of students’ use of school district online collaboration platforms. 

The technology scans student emails, files, chat messages and other communication that takes place through school-provided platforms for references to behavior such as violence, self-harm, drugs, suicide and bullying. Trained monitors evaluate the flagged content, and if necessary, alert school officials to problems. 

One pioneer student safety service is Gaggle, which serves more than 4.5 million students in 50 states. Gaggle uses a team of more than 175 trained safety representatives who review the alerts coming from the technology. The alerts are then further analyzed by a core group of 25 trained safety professionals who determine the urgency of the alerts and the proper course of action.

24-Hour Support in Millburn School districts are using student safety platforms as part of a holistic approach to identify students who need interventions or require additional support services. Knowing that students may not always verbalize their needs, Dr. Christine Burton, superintendent of Millburn Township Public Schools, said their student safety platform helps bridge the gap between a child in need and an adult who can come to their aid quickly. “Students may voice their thoughts in a different form of communication, and that’s where Gaggle comes into play,” she said. “Then, it’s our responsibility to do what we can to connect students with mental health professionals and get them the support that they need.”

The Essex County district takes both digital and physical security very seriously, which is why it decided to implement Gaggle Safety Management. “Our job is to give students anytime, anywhere access to information,” said Evan Abramson, director of technology, “and we also need to keep them protected.” Abramson noted that all of the district’s principals and board members were involved with the platform selection process, and the local police department also played a role in those early meetings. “We worked together to create a plan of policies and procedures,” he said. “That way, anytime an incident occurred, everyone would immediately know what to do and how to act upon it.”

Last December, for example, the district received an alert about a student who was in crisis and possibly considering suicide. The student discussed the issue online with peers—a conversation that immediately triggered a Gaggle alert. “We knew right away that we had a middle school student who needed our help and support,” recalled Burton. “My principal got the alert and immediately dispatched the information to the police,” she continued. “The child was able to get to a hospital during winter break—when school wasn’t even in session—to obtain the necessary mental health support.” 

For Millburn Township, social-emotional learning is a critical facet of education. All education stakeholders—students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members—understand that the well-being of students comes first. This commitment strengthened further during the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were learning from home. During that period, the district leaned on Gaggle to alert it to potential issues being shared via email or in Google Docs. “When we got the alerts, we were able to provide services to students immediately,” said Abramson. 

Gaggle also gives Millburn a partner it can reach out to around the clock. “If there’s an incident, we get the phone calls morning, noon, or night,” said Abramson. “And while it may be a mission-critical situation, the Gaggle team is always calm and collected and ready to help.”

Safeguarding Students in Wayne In a Passaic County district, education leaders found students’ use of Google Drive to be a real eye-opener. The platform was an integral part of the technological landscape at Wayne Township Public Schools, but the district was concerned that existing resources were not properly monitoring student activity when using tools such as Google Drive. “Our Google usage was growing exponentially, and we didn’t have a good handle on exactly what the kids were doing,” said Dr. Joe Borchard, the district’s director of technology.

With digital student safety a priority, Borchard was eager to find a better solution for security. After making the switch to Gaggle Safety Management, administrators started to discover some inappropriate ways students used Google Drive, including threaded discussions during class and the sharing of inappropriate images and videos. “These were things that were going on basically right under our noses,” said Borchard. “We learned that, before Gaggle, we didn’t have the right tools to help our students grow up in a connected, global society as responsible digital citizens.”

The district then created procedures to handle harassment and bullying based on the Gaggle alerts. “While we know digital citizenship is an important lesson, we didn’t realize to what extent we needed to teach it in our schools,” said Borchard. “We have to teach students how to use these tools responsibly in a connected world.”

The district’s organizational units within Google, which are set up by grade level, allow Gaggle Safety Management to be even more effective. For instance, if an incident is discovered involving a ninth-grader, the assistant principal at the school is immediately notified. “Our notifications go specifically to the admin who’s responsible for that grade,” said Borchard. “Once our principals and assistant principals saw the email notifications that were coming from Gaggle, and what it was that their kids were doing within their Drive accounts, it was eye-opening.”

With a technology plan in place and an objective throughout the district that focuses on education rather than discipline, Wayne Township schools sees Gaggle increasingly becoming a teaching tool. “It’s a way to be proactive,” said Borchard. “And it’s all about protecting our students. Even if it’s just one kid, it’s worth it.”

Student Safety That Saves Lives This student safety tool has helped districts save thousands of student lives. Nationally, in the 2019–2020 academic year, Gaggle helped districts save the lives of more than 900 students who were planning or actually in the act of attempting suicide. 

Student Privacy Parents expect their children to be safe when using school-provided technology—and school districts need to make sure that happens. Often, the use of services such as Gaggle raises questions about student privacy. While districts are typically required to have an acceptable use policy, Gaggle recommends that districts notify families about their implementation of the student safety solution. It is also important to note that Gaggle monitors only those student communications which are linked to students’ school accounts.

For many districts that have partnered with Gaggle for years to protect students, the service has become integral to their safety culture. The service has offered its districts an added level of security during the pandemic and distance learning. As instruction has moved online and students are attending classes in their living rooms and bedrooms, teachers may not be able to identify students who are struggling with social-emotional issues in the same way they could if they observed them every day in class. 

Now more than ever, students and educators need support as we navigate this complicated and challenging time. Online safety tools keep a close eye on how students are doing whether they’re learning in the classroom or at home, giving educators greater insight and peace of mind. 

Jodi Lott is a regional sales manager for Gaggle.

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