The world used to be a pretty small place for the typical school district. We had the physical safety needs of students to think about, but the communities where we operated also tended to be smaller. Today, those “communities” are digital in nature and span the entire globe. And while student safety has always been a top priority for educators, administrators, and parents, wrapping our arms around everything that a student can and will be exposed to on a daily basis has become nearly impossible.
The good news is that as our digital environment has expanded, so too have the number of tools that are focused on student safety. As a user of Office 365 and Google for Education, our district has been utilizing the Gaggle student safety platform for about four years. When our classes went 100% remote in March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we expanded our use of the platform across all grades and began using it to monitor more off-campus activities.
Along the way, we’ve been able to help develop better digital citizens, protect our students’ social and emotional health, and expand equity across a wider swath of students. Here are five ways our student safety platform helps us achieve these goals:
Encourages students to help one another
When we first rolled out the student safety platform in 2016, it immediately picked up on a lot of student-to-student communications about emotional issues and the need for support. These are things we didn’t previously have insights into.
Over the last few years, we’ve also been alerted to a number of VPS students who were in need of serious assistance and reached out online knowing that their contributions were being monitored—and that their friends would alert an adult to the problem. That puts the power in the hands of students to help each other when a friend reaches out and gives us the access that we need to help and support them.
Helps students act appropriately
All students know that the systems they’re using are being monitored, and they know it’s for their own safety. If we provide 1:1 devices (iPads, Chromebooks, and laptops) and technology, we have a responsibility to keep them safe—not just to the students, but also to their parents.
We are upfront in every building about how we monitor the activity and what systems we have in place. “We’re going to be here, monitoring the system, so please be appropriate,” we tell them (versus threatening them with getting into trouble). This helps develop positive behaviors about using technology and really helps us tackle the digital citizenship challenges head-on.
Creates learning opportunities
Supporting good global citizenship means ensuring our students understand that if they are making questionable decisions on a digital device, they are going to be presented with a learning opportunity. This isn’t necessarily a “gotcha” moment, but one meant to teach the student to make a more responsible decision the next time around.
From the parental perspective, one of our own had a situation arise concerning her child, who was in middle school when VPS implemented Gaggle. After the son of Tamara Shoup, our executive director of school support services, began messaging another student back and forth about guns (he was doing research on World War II at the time), she walked into work one day and faced three teachers who wanted to discuss the information that was being accessed online. “He wasn’t in any trouble, but I was able to learn very quickly what he was doing,” said Shoup. “That experience led to a broader conversation about personal responsibility in a time when school shootings can be a real threat to our students and staff.”
Fosters a protected environment
When it comes to digital equity, we’ve been focused on making sure access is ubiquitous, and that all students have access to the information and the resources they need. This has become especially important in the remote learning world.
By using the student safety management platform, we can monitor district resources for learning and make students aware of what we expect in the learning environment. This allows our students to become good global citizens in a protected environment, which is where we want them to learn that—versus on a device with no controls or barriers in place.
Allows students to focus on academics
Most students are having non-educational experiences right now, which doesn’t necessarily help them advance in their academic careers. If we can provide some buffers, parameters, and support, students can get laser-focused on their academic pursuits and prepare for successful futures. As a district leader, if you truly understand what your rationale is (i.e., to provide digital safety and security), the actual systems that you put in place would make sense and wouldn’t be overwhelming. That’s what we’ve been able to do with our student safety platform.
Jim Gray is Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at Vancouver Public Schools in Vancouver, WA.
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