School violence is a stark reminder of the reality our students live in today. As headlines keep rolling in, and as lawmakers are urged to act in the interest of student safety, many school leaders are left wondering how to keep their buildings and students secure.
It seems as if there isn’t a single district or school that hasn’t dealt with lockdown drills, school shootings, threats of violent school incidents, or worries about students self-harming.
School leaders are working to identify the biggest threats to a safe and secure learning environment. Solutions often include those that address both physical safety and online security, keeping networks secure and monitoring student activity for alarming or worrisome information.
“Student safety is the most important thing to us,” says Ross Randall, director of technology in the Lamar County School District. “When students are here with us, that’s the most important thing. If they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to learn. It’s important for us to provide physical security and mental security.”
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The district employs a number of tools to maintain that physical and mental security for students and educators.
The district uses Lightspeed Systems’ Relay platform to filter, manage, monitor, protect,and analyze across operating systems. With web filtering agents installed on school devices, IT staff can see web activity (including encrypted content) and get real-time analysis of student behavior such as search terms, typed content, or attempted visits to websites that might be inappropriate or alarming.
Students use Google’s G Suite extensively, and Relay also monitors what students create in those G Suite documents.
Relay’s filter includes the ability to identify flagged terms. If a student types a flagged term in a G Suite document or searches for a flagged term, the IT team is alerted. Usually, Randall says, the flag is a false positive–a student might type in a flagged term for a research project. But sometimes, the flagged term leads to a very real concern.
“There have been several instances when I’ve felt uncomfortable about how a student has searched for a term, or how they have used a term in a document,” he says. “I can take that, call the school, and the school will contact the counselor to pull the student out and have a conversation about what’s been typed.”
Randall also uses Safety Check, a relatively new feature of the Relay platform. Safety Check monitors student activity on school devices, uses advanced AI to identify students at risk, and delivers real-time alerts on activity that might indicate self-harm or other dangers.
“It not only looks at certain terms, but it also looks at behavior patterns,” Randall says. “If a student is consistently searching for a certain thing, such as methods of suicide, and then in another document the student has typed about depression–that system looks at different patterns and it sends us a flag. We can monitor that student’s activity and look a little closer at what’s going on. It’s fantastic.”
If students log into school accounts from a home device, the Relay Filter is active, meaning school IT staff, administrators, and guidance counselors are able to learn of potentially harmful or threatening incidents even if students aren’t at school when searching for information about those events.
Other efforts to keep student safety a top priority
During every Cybersecurity Awareness Month in October, teachers incorporate cybersecurity education in their classes.
“Students use technology so much in and outside of schools, and it’s very important to have conversations about that. They have to understand that they have a certain level of responsibility for themselves–the dangers are out there,” Randall says.
The district also operates a texting tip line for students who need it.
“It’s really hard to get students to buy in to sending in tips–most of them don’t want to do it,” Randall says. “But using a texting number has been so helpful.”
Any information texted to the tip line goes directly to the district’s internal police department, which monitors the information and distributes tips or concerns.
“Whether it’s a threat against a student, or a tip from one student concerns another student’s safety, officers always follow up and work directly with principals and counselors,” Randall says.
“This is really hard to measure–there’s not a lot of data that can tell us how effective we are in our efforts, but it makes me feel good every day when I know we’ve done everything we can,” he adds. “We’re creating an environment where students feel like they’re allowed to speak about how they’re feeling.”