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Cleveland Schools Use Gaggle to Monitor Students Online

Cleveland Metropolitan School District Principal Jim Greene believes Gaggle has saved student lives, monitoring indications of problems from inappropriate social media use to bullying, self-harm, violence or drugs.

digital monitoring software
Photo by John Kuntz.
John Kuntz/TNS
(TNS) — The number of young children active on social media apps is rapidly rising.

While these apps require participants to be at least 13 years old, 33 percent of 7- to 9-year-old children are active on them, as reported by parents in a recent poll. The alarming statistic is poised to worsen according to Pew Research Center, which found that the number of children 5 years old and younger using TikTok quadrupled in the last year.

“They’re learning behaviors that are so unacceptable, and it’s becoming normalized,” said Mrs. Sharon Lenahan, a fourth-grade teacher at Almira Elementary School in Cleveland. “There’s so much we don’t know about what they’re watching on TikTok. It could be sex, drugs, alcohol … it’s scary.”

As part of a special immersive reporting project, and The Plain Dealer followed Mrs. Lenahan’s class for a school year to document the ways teachers overcome the challenges of educating kids whose lives are complicated by poverty. Social media use will play a big role throughout the series, as Almira faculty seek to teach students appropriate uses of technology and how to protect themselves against cyber bullying.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District administrators have contingencies in place to help prevent issues that arise from social media use, mitigating the resulting negative impacts to students’ mental health, social well-being and concentration on academics.

To monitor inappropriate social media conduct on school-issued devices, the district uses a system called Gaggle, which deploys artificial intelligence to identify keywords and raise red flags. It’s a program Almira Principal Jim Greene says he believes, without a doubt, has saved the lives of Almira students.

From bullying to thoughts of self-harm, drugs to violence, the program picks up on the identified problematic language through platforms beyond social media, such as digital school assignment websites and Microsoft Word documents.

And understanding the value these alerts bring, the district has developed procedures to respond to each situation in a quick and appropriate manner – no matter the day or time.

In one instance, Gaggle identified thoughts of self-harm in chatroom messages on a sixth-grade student’s computer.

Though written over the weekend, the CMSD safety police officers were notified by Gaggle and visited her house the same day for a wellness check. They spoke with the student and her mother to see if there were any immediate safety concerns and then completed a detailed report for school administrators.

“In the short term, the key is making sure the child is safe,” Mr. Greene said. “Once we can be sure there’s no imminent threat, the report lets us know what next steps should be taken to make sure the student gets the ongoing support they need.”

A few months later, the same student wrote thoughts of violence in a Word document on her computer. This time, the student was at school, so administrators and Jessie Jones, the school counselor, were able to engage the student and speak with her mother before the school day ended.

These strategies are all part of the district’s digital citizenship education curriculum. The push has been developed, in part, because administrators understand that, though a potential for danger and distractions, it’s important to Cleveland parents that their children are allowed to have personal electronic devices in the building to stay connected.

“We’re in a neighborhood where there have been abductions. Parents have seen tragic things happen on the news and witnessed horrific things in their own lives, so electronic access really is a safety net,” said Mr. Greene.

By using Gaggle and teaching safe and appropriate ways to communicate online, Mr. Greene hopes that students can use their devices in a productive way that doesn’t turn dangerous, urging parents to stay apprised of their children’s online activity and aware of warning signs that could mean trouble.

Experts at the Cleveland Clinic advise parents to be on the lookout for changes in behavior, such as a decline in self-esteem and increased irritability and anxiety, which could indicate issues with cyber bullying, online predators and dangerous viral trends.

For this innovative series, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District gave two reporters unprecedented access to a classroom at Almira Elementary School to show readers the challenges of educating children in poverty and what the school district is doing to overcome them. Students’ names have been changed to protect their identity. Read more about this project here.

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