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More schools in Texas are investing in online student monitoring. But does it work? | New

For 24/7 mental health support, in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s toll-free hotline at 800-662-4357. You can also contact a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

Last fall, teachers at the Seguin Independent School District received an email that no school district wants to read: A student had suicidal thoughts and the district had to intervene.

The student was approached by the district crisis team made up of several faculty members. Their parents have been notified and given resources to help the student.

It was a crisis averted.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, a district about 36 miles east of San Antonio, said it wouldn’t have been possible without monitoring software called Gaggle. The district uses this software to monitor student behavior, sending alerts if it detects that a student poses a threat to themselves or others.

In this case, the student from the Seguin area wrote that he had committed suicide in a Google document while logged into his student email account. Gaggle employees saw what the student was writing and reported the school.

“The goal is to be proactive and hopefully prevent something tragic from happening, whether it’s a suicide or potentially something similar to what happened. in Uvalde,” Gutierrez said.

Texas school districts lead the nation in purchasing contracts with digital surveillance companies. More than 200 of the state’s 1,200 districts use some sort of monitoring software, the most popular being Social Sentinel and Gaggle.

Social Sentinel tracks social media sites used by students, looking for keywords such as “shoot” or “kill” in relation to the school district. Gaggle only monitors a student’s school laptop and anything associated with a child’s school email account.

But there is debate about whether surveillance software does more harm than good. Rachel Levinson-Waldman, associate director of the Freedom and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote that such surveillance software will not prevent the next mass shooting.

“There is simply no evidence that widespread social media monitoring works reliably to ward off threats,” Levinson-Waldman wrote.

Research from the Center for Democracy and Technology suggests these monitoring tools are ‘unduly intrusive’ and have the potential to suppress creative speech if students feel reluctant to speak up and believe behavior monitoring is the norm. .

Since the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, there has been more focus on how to make the school safer.

In the months leading up to the shooting, the 18-year-old Uvalde shooter posted pictures of his guns on his Instagram account. He also posted a cryptic note on Instagram on May 14: “10 more days.” Texas officials said the shooter took part in an Instagram group chat to talk about buying his guns, prompting at least one person in the group to ask if he was going to be a school shooter.

“Ideally, we could have identified this guy as a suspect and dealt with it before he even thought about attacking the 24th,” Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a press conference on Tuesday. May 27.

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District had purchased a contract with Social Sentinel. The school district, like many others across Texas and the country, uses the software to “monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde to identify any possible threats that may be made against students and/or the school district staff.

But that didn’t stop the shooter.

Indeed, Social Sentinel only flags public posts on social media, said Jean-Paul Guilbault, CEO of Navigate360, the company behind Social Sentinel. The Uvalde shooter was sending messages in private chats.

Gutierrez said this is one of the pitfalls of surveillance software. While it can provide alerts on any public threats or those related to school-issued email accounts, there is no way to access private chats on social media platforms.

“We must rely solely on our students and staff to be extremely vigilant and report potential harm,” he said.

Seguin ISD spends about $21,000 a year on Gaggle. For the most part, schools use monitoring software as part of their security plans. When a threat is detected, schools look for the best way to help students, either by sending them to a school counselor or by directing them to an outside expert.

Chelsea Barabas, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied security systems in Texas schools, found that over the past decade there has been an increase in annual spending on surveillance per student – from about $68 per student to $113 per student. During the same period, school spending on social services fell from $25 per student per year to just $32.

Barabas said she believed surveillance spending would increase after the Uvalde shooting, particularly after calls for more safety and security in schools.

“Parents in particular, they want to see that school districts are making an effort to keep their kids safe,” Barabas said.

Andrew Fernandez, chief of communications and technology at the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District, said online monitoring software used by that district has prevented students from harming themselves.

“It was prevented,” Fernandez said. “What is the magnitude of [the threat was]? We don’t know, but the fact that we don’t is a good thing.

How schools are using this technology

Seguin ISD is one of 105 school districts in Texas using Gaggle and, according to Gutierrez, it has been a critical tool as lower coronavirus infection rates allow schools to reopen their in-person classrooms.

But the return has not been without its problems, and Gutierrez said Gaggle has been instrumental in spotting changes in student behavior during the pandemic.

“I feel like we’re going through a mental health crisis,” he said. “We were going through this before COVID, but I think it certainly got worse.”

Not everyone is a fan of these programs. Odis Johnson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said such software systems tend to make students feel suspicious, which creates a poor learning environment. His research also suggests that increased levels of surveillance in schools are detrimental to students’ academic progress because surveillance of school shooters or self-harm turns into disciplinary action for unrelated actions.

Barabas said there is evidence that shows students of color are more likely to be disciplined for minor infractions because of these surveillance systems, which she also tracks in her research.

Johnson said he’s not advocating for schools to get rid of their software or reduce school security, but school administrators need to be aware of these side effects. In his studies, he also found that there wasn’t enough data to suggest that surveillance software actually stops school shootings.

“I like this idea of ​​the right balance,” Johnson said. “We need to know what their unintended consequences are. We simply cannot move forward trying to fortify schools to stop one of the shootings without paying attention to all the other ways it changes schools as a social system.

Multidimensional approach

Guilbault, CEO of Navigate360, said that while his company provides a unique product to school districts, it’s important to remember that it’s not a panacea for school safety. This is only part of it.

“We are really here to improve the school climate and culture and ensure that every life is protected in school and help schools,” he said.

Part of this multi-faceted plan includes security drills, better physical security for schools, and encouraging students and teachers to report threats when they see them. The San Marcos School District has hired at least five counselors to help struggling students.

“It’s just about providing an abundance of support and resources to families inside and outside of San Marcos,” Fernandez said. “These online platforms really allow us to be proactive. It’s just an extra security shield that we have in our back pocket.

In Seguin, the school district has added 12 new counselor positions over the past five years, bringing their number of counselors to 36.

“We obviously focus on academics, but we also put a lot of emphasis and emphasis on supporting the mental well-being of students,” Gutierrez said.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/30/texas-school-safety-surveillance/.

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