Editor's Note: Christina Iremonger is chief digital officer for the Vancouver Public Schools in Vancouver, Washington.
Like many school districts, we went into this digital transformation relying on our students and teachers to tell us when someone was acting in a way that would harm themselves or others. With nearly 24,000 students, 37 schools, and a superintendent who is tightly focused on student safety in both the online and offline world, we knew we needed to do more in this era of online learning. After all, children now are using technology that we, as adults, couldn’t have even envisioned five or 10 years ago.
For our district, the natural choice was to implement a technology platform that would alert us to potentially worrisome communications. We took the step three years ago with the goal of making sure we didn’t leave the online presence of our students unattended. Today, our student safety solution plays an important role in helping us keep our students safe online, and in helping them be good digital citizens.
Here are six strategies we used when implementing our safety platform:
Develop trust with your technology provider
When we first signed on with Gaggle, we were excited about it and wanted to be very vigilant. If students even mentioned anything of concern in an email or schoolwork document, we wanted to be alerted. Unfortunately, that approach overwhelmed our systems — just as our vendor has cautioned us. That’s where the trust factor comes in. Once we realized that our student safety solution provider was alerting us to the incidences that really needed our attention — while still keeping us apprised of the minor issues — the process worked much better. Basically, we pulled back a bit and decided to follow the guidelines provided by our vendor. That was definitely a lesson for us, but it was one we had to experience as a district as we developed that trust.
Create a 'safe' space for sharing student information
Our system alerts us and/or the police to potentially serious, life-threatening situations and also has opened the door for more students to share information. Our students now know that we are monitoring the platform and if they let out a cry for help, we’re listening. It’s a safe place for them to go, and that’s an invaluable benefit. It’s just as if they were writing or posting something to a friend — but with the knowledge that we’re going to pick up on it and do something about it. That helps students who might not be brave enough to share their struggles with an adult, but who will readily share their concerns with another student in writing.
Hire help for responding off hours
When I came onboard as chief digital officer, our district IT team was grateful that I was willing to take on the challenge of fully implementing our online student safety management solution. So, I stood in front of the principals and said, "We have this wonderful service that we are going to turn on, and that means you’re going to get some alerts in the middle of the night, and you may need to call 911.”
This approach didn’t work. In fact, it blew up, and rightfully so. Principals need their time off from work. Because everyone here was concerned about student safety, we hired two people on a supplemental contract. One is a former police officer who now works in our district and the other has administrative credentials and works in our central office. They agreed to take the after-hour, weekend, and holiday calls. They handle the potentially harmful student situations and notify the police department. Because they have access to the student information, in accordance with the Child Internet Protection Act regulations, those two employees inform the police officers about the situation and then let them handle it from there.
Develop and share protocols in advance
Right from the outset we set up a protocol with our schools and community that, if a situation occurs and we obtain the related information, it’s our responsibility to deal with it immediately. The principal is notified the following workday and addresses the incident at the school level. Of course, our police department works with us and appreciates the calls. Law enforcement even does the home visits and/or connects us to a crisis line, the latter of which we then use to share the information and get support for the involved parties.
Use the platform to encourage good digital citizenship
As a district, we’re doing more work on the social-emotional side of dealing with technology and how students can be good digital citizens. A lot of factors come into play here, but at a basic level our students do tend to recognize serious, reportable issues. We trust them with that responsibility, but we also see occasions where maybe the students don’t grasp the seriousness of the situation and don't report the issue. If someone puts it out there in writing, we can catch it with our online student safety platform.
For example, as part of our new, “We Create” initiative for grades K-5, instructional technology facilitators go out to schools to get involved with the character education that teachers use as part of their core instruction. The facilitators infuse technology and digital citizenship lessons into character education in a fun way. This classroom support helps kids create and understand how they’re using digital tools more for learning than for consumption. Through that process, we're able to talk about how to persevere, help a friend, or adopt other character traits that build community and culture. That’s one way we’re addressing some of the social-emotional learning standards that our state is considering for adoption.
Understand what students are capable of online
As educators and administrators, we need to be very aware that most of our students initially think about using technology for consumption and not necessarily for schoolwork. They don’t see it as a tool for writing, doing research, or other educational activities. Consequently, they use technology in ways that we, as adults, may not anticipate. For example, they can use Google Docs as a chatroom, where they're typing back and forth with one another. When you’re setting up your online student safety solution, you need to ensure that students are very comfortable using the technology in the way they want to use it. Our duty is to help protect and safeguard them. A service like this helps us achieve that goal. We can't do it only from our angle; we need that extra support.