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Webinar: K-12 IT Directors Praise Student Monitoring Tools

The education IT security company ManagedMethods hosted a webinar Thursday to discuss ways that schools can make use of monitoring tools to flag and investigate school safety and student mental health issues.

Students in a classroom using laptops with their phones on the desks beside them and a blue digital line connecting all the phones.
With school districts across the country now managing thousands of devices for students to use for homework and remote learning, administrators are using student monitoring tools to help investigate instances of bullying and discrimination, self-harm and suicide, threats of violence, explicit and inappropriate content, personally identifiable information exposure and more.

Noting the magnitude of threats to student mental health and safety amid the digitization of education, the K-12 cybersecurity company ManagedMethods hosted a webinar Thursday featuring Toni McPherson, director of information systems and services at Beaumont Independent School District in Texas, and IT Director Bob Boyd of Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin, to emphasize the importance of student monitoring tools for school safety.

According to McPherson, Beaumont officials noticed an uptick in concerns about student mental health and safety when devices were first issued to students in the early days of remote learning during COVID-19. While student monitoring software tools for district-issued devices have been considered controversial due to privacy concerns, she said they’ve proven vital in maintaining school safety in her district of about 17,000 students.

“The technology department was seeing all of these social and emotional issues and aspects that play into learning happening on their devices,” she said. “The transition to technology during the pandemic has been both good and bad … The types of things that can happen over the Internet are opening a huge can of worms, and I feel like it’s a continuous cat-and-mouse game.”

Boyd said the story has been much the same in his district of about 3,500 students.

“We’ve seen similar changes in our student behavior because of the amount of time we had to spend in virtual learning,” he said. “We have definitely seen an uptick in bullying and in other inappropriate behaviors that, if we didn’t have the technology in place from ManagedMethods and the other partners we use, there’s no way that a staff of five could handle the 2,700 devices that we have that are, as we say, ‘out in the wild.’”

One of the most important things to consider, which tools like those offered by ManagedMethods help to determine, is whether certain flags are just students researching health topics online, or they’re genuine mental health and school safety concerns, according to Boyd.

“We have seen an uptick in veiled cries for help in going to websites like BetterHelp or looking for therapists in our area and ‘counselors near me,’ those kinds of things,” he said. “One of our charter schools is a high school of health sciences, and it’s difficult sometimes to filter out what is being done in a health sciences area versus what is somebody who is looking for help on a personal level. The technology is very helpful with that.

“If there’s an alcohol type of alert or a drug one, but it’s coming out of our health sciences school, that’s more than likely someone that’s doing legitimate research.”

In both districts, the two IT administrators said they investigate and prioritize flags on their systems depending on what types of alerts they get and the urgency of those alerts.

In the case of Beaumont, McPherson said, the district uses a student crisis response team, which coordinates with IT leaders and administrators to identify and investigate school safety and mental health issues.

“ManagedMethods has become a crucial tool for us to be able to do that,” she said, adding that they’ve used it for email and (Google) Drive monitoring. “In times of urgency, we’re moving fast, depending on the type of alert. Technology is actually making those determinations very quickly and trying to put those stories together once the alert is received.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.