Back-to-School Safety: How Technology Fits into Student Mental Health and Safety Programs

September 22, 2022


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The digital transformation of education was due to happen sooner or later, but finding ways to help kids learn safely and effectively has had a learning curve of its own. Education’s hastened transition to the screen thanks to COVID-19 had many players within its ecosystem scrambling to keep up. 

The infamous “Zoombomber” is one example of this, who exposed the cyber weakness of the popular video meeting app, amongst other things, in an elementary classroom. This wasn’t the only example, in June 2020, Microsoft Security Intelligence reported that the education industry accounted for 61% of the 7.7 million malware encounters, more than any other sector.

Unfortunately, cybersecurity dilemmas in education still prevail, as just over Labor day weekend of this year, officials at The Los Angeles unified school district confirmed that hackers targeted the second-largest school district in the US with a cyber-attack. 

What is probably the most concerning is that the question of safety that comes from cybersecurity is just one of the challenges of school via the screen. Children’s mental health has seen a gauntlet of trials in response to the pandemic’s impact as well as more digitized interactions—putting many parents and teachers at a worrying crossroads. 

ManagedMethods, leading data security and student safety through their platform for K-12 schools, recently held a webinar that was a round table discussion between two stakeholders in today’s technological learning environment—Bob Boyd, the Director of Information Technology at Kettle Moraine School District (WI), and Toni McPherson, Director of Information Systems and Services at Beaumont ISD (TX).

Let’s see what was unearthed in their discussion on how technology can fit into students’ reality of today, with safety and mental health top of mind. 

Balancing Privacy and Surveillance 

One of the trickiest balances for the digital age of learning is how to have school on devices while safely and fairly monitoring students on these devices. Students’ personal rights must be respected, but at the same time, learning online opens up a whole new world of risks while also offering unprecedented freedom and autonomy. Students might not be privy to all of the different ways that they can be taken advantage of online, and schools have to try and safely navigate them through this evolving process. 

Bring your own device, or BYOD for short, is a method of providing students with 1:1 access to technology. Many factors have led to the development of these programs—from schools looking to foster students’ 21st-century skills, to students feeling that learning is more personalized and comfortable on their own devices. With 70% of high schools BYOD, new boundary lines are being drawn on what is permitted when students can access the online world while on school grounds. 

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“Establish what your property is and the boundary line that goes with it, which comes from knowing what your laws are and checking your funding sources—as some of these will have their own requirements,” said McPherson. “Anything that happens while representing the district, whether it’s in school, on the playground, it is important to be transparent about what is being done with students.”

“Communication with staff, students, and community are key,” continued Boyd. “We had multiple parent open houses where parents came to ask questions and the parents especially appreciated that in the last couple years, they got the answers to their questions.”

Security administrators within the realm of education are seeing a whole new slew of challenges in 2022, requiring new levels of collaboration from teachers, to parents, to administrators. Maintaining compliance with data regulations and protecting the personal information of both students and staff is a huge challenge for schools. This while upholding a safe learning environment on a limited budget. 

In a time when learning institutions are being targeted by cyber-criminals, security platforms will need to innovate for education’s specific challenges and needs.

Monitoring Peer-to-Peer

Another challenge is the communication between peers on the screen. With 95% of teens in the U.S. online, a whole new medium for bullying—cyberbullying—is opened up. An extension of bullying in real-time, online bullying just allows victims to be harassed through multiple channels and in various ways. This affects success in school, with 60% of bullying victims saying that being cyberbullied affects their ability to learn and feel safe in school, bullying can also lead to lower learning outcomes.

This is something that third-party providers can help teachers and administrators to monitor. An example of a company providing these solutions is ManagedMethods, an affordable data security and student safety platform for K-12 schools. 

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The company provides controls that help to manage cyberbullying, providing capacities for content scanning and image recognition that automatically detect cyberbullying through school-provided cloud applications, like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. These levers determine self-harm red flags, threats of violence, and explicit content in school cloud applications while maintaining a safe distance for protecting student identities and personal data. 

“Students know all about the tools we are using, including ManagedMethods, and have started to self-report things, such as if they are being bullied, see bullying, fights, etc.”, continued McPherson. “They know that something is watching them and it doesn’t put the full responsibility on them, so they don’t feel like a “snitch”.

“Students are now correcting classmates and getting them to stop because they don’t want to get in trouble, mirrored Boyd. “We can see that and we can give students positive reinforcement for speaking up to their peers.”

A Digital Foot Forward

Students are spending more time learning, working, and communicating with school-provided technology. As they become more comfortable with this online space, it is important that institutions also set up the frameworks needed to protect them in this space. With ManagedMethods schools also gain data security from internal and external breaches, threat protection from malware and phishing schemes, and full control over account behavior. 

“We used ManagedMethods for threats to buildings, isolating IP addresses to see where those threats are coming from,” said McPherson. “The platform also helps with email and drive monitoring to help detect malware and spam and prevent any further spread of these threats.”

Through their API-based cloud security platform, ManagedMethods helps to automate policy enforcement with out-of-the-box and customizable policies, so that a particular district’s data is secure. This allows schools to focus on other priorities and put processes in place to alert school counselors and/or building officials so that students get the support they need when they need it. 

This might mean that schools evaluate their team’s capacity, understanding the internal bandwidth that they have to ensure security and safety. There will always be a call to action to protect students and property, so understand what different vendors provide and if they can help your particular needs. 

“Work with partners who listen to what you’re saying, not just try to sell you what they do. There’s no one size fits all. You have to figure out what you need and then go out and look for it,” said Boyd.

Schools are grappling with a whole new set of societal issues and cybersecurity threats in 2022, which makes it even more critical for those in education to work together. Companies that help to provide a road map for institutions to navigate these new safety and security challenges will help the learning continue, without putting students at risk. 

Disclosure: This article mentions a client of an Espacio portfolio company.


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