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Montefiore in the News

September 18, 2021

Schools implement software to scan students’ email and web searches for signs of self-harm or violence—but parents can take proactive steps

As schools welcome back students, many educators and administrators are depending on bots to alert them of kids who are at risk of harming themselves or others.

School districts use artificial-intelligence software that can scan student communications and web searches on school-issued devices—and even devices that are logged in via school networks—for signs of suicidal ideation, violence against fellow students, bullying and more. Included in the scans are emails and chats between friends, as well as student musings composed in Google Docs or Microsoft Word.

When the AI recognizes certain key phrases, these systems typically send an alert to school administrators and counselors, who then determine whether an intervention with the student and parents is warranted.

Many school districts have used monitoring software over the past three years to prevent school shootings, but it has evolved to become a tool to spot a range of mental-health issues, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. School administrators say such surveillance is more important than ever as students return to the classroom after 18 months of pandemic-related stress, uncertainty and loss. Critics say it raises questions about privacy, misuse and students’ ability to express feelings freely or search for answers.

I asked an expert in children’s mental health to provide some ways to talk to your kids about this before you get a call from the school. I’ve compiled them below (in case you just want to skip down for the parenting advice).

Surveillance of student communications and web searches appears to be fairly widespread. In June, the consumer-advocacy nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology conducted online surveys of more than 1,000 third- through 10th-grade teachers, more than 1,600 parents and more than 400 high-school students across the country. The topic was student-monitoring software. According to the results, which the organization plans to release Tuesday, 81% of the teachers surveyed said their school uses some form of monitoring software, and 77% of the students said the same. Of those students, 80% said knowing they were being monitored made them more careful about what they searched online.

In some cases, it’s unclear whether students understand they are being monitored. Some schools disclose it in tech-use policies or codes of conduct, but how many kids actually read those? The Springfield School District, in Oregon, mentions monitoring in the policy students must sign when checking out school-issued laptops, but the district doesn’t trumpet it.

““I have mixed feelings about it but if we’re going to err on one side it has to be on the side of safety.””

“I don’t want to be sneaky about it, but if we were really obvious about it, students might not use their school devices,” said Brian Megert, special programs director for the district, which this fall began using school online-safety company Lightspeed Systems to monitor student communications. Lightspeed’s monitoring software is used in nearly 32,000 U.S. schools at an annual cost of about $2 a student.

“From a public-sector perspective, there is no presumed anonymity in anything you do on a school device, on a school network or in a school setting,” Dr. Megert added. “I have mixed feelings about it, but if we’re going to err on one side it has to be on the side of safety.”

Just last weekend, Lightspeed flagged a Google chat that a student in Dr. Megert’s district had with a suicide hotline, as well as chats another student had with peers about plans for self-harm. In both cases, the school contacted the students’ families and arranged for mental-health services.

The San Marcos Unified School District near San Diego received five legitimate alerts of self-harm from Lightspeed in the first two weeks of school. The district’s assistant superintendent, Tiffany Campbell, said that is an unusually high number this early in the school year.

“Intellectually we knew how much support our students would need, but it’s a hard reality to see,” Dr. Campbell said.

She said the majority of alerts the district receives are false alarms, in which a problematic phrase is part of an assignment, or just jokes among friends. However, she estimates that 20% to 30% of the alerts indicate potential crises.

Dr. Campbell described a recent case involving a student who kept a personal diary in a Google Doc, stating a desire to die. “An administrator was immediately able to call the parent, and the parent immediately got their child help,” she said. “That’s the type of situation that makes the program worth it.”

False alarms might decrease now that Lightspeed has added human reviewers to look at flagged communications and assign them a threat level.

Bark, another online monitoring company, said it detected 5,000 credible self-harm or suicide situations in the second week of September alone. Bark, available to schools at no charge, is used by more than 2,900 school districts and doesn’t typically include human review.

It’s hard to argue against efforts to save kids’ lives. But privacy and mental-health experts say such surveillance can be a slippery slope, especially if it ends up being used for reasons other than harm prevention.

Beila Lugo, mental health coordinator for Charles County Public Schools in Maryland, which uses Bark’s software, said she has had to tell some administrators to back off when they were planning to confront students for inappropriate language or content in some flagged communications. “We’re not using this for discipline, we’re using it for monitoring,” she said.

Privacy advocates and mental-health experts say this kind of monitoring might take away the only safe space that some kids, especially in poorer families, have to search for help and to communicate with friends.

“The school Chromebook is the only device some kids have, and the school Wi-Fi is the only internet connection some have,” said Sophia Cope, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

What You Can Do

“Privacy is a developmental milestone for teens,” said Hina Talib, an associate professor of pediatrics and an adolescent-medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York. By acknowledging that, she added, “we give them choices and respect.” Still, she said, there are ways to talk to kids about mental health before you get a call from the school.

Start early. Even very young kids can have thoughts of self-harm. Bark has detected increased expressions of suicidal ideation among elementary-school students so far this school year. Dr. Talib suggests checking in with kids about mental health starting in fifth grade.

Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide. Dr. Talib said some parents worry that bringing up the topic of self-harm or suicide could inspire kids to act, but she said that isn’t true; kids usually feel relieved to have someone to talk to.

Find a conversation starter. Rather than directly asking children how they’re doing, it can be helpful to find a reason to broach the topic. Kids might be aware that September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. You can talk about that, and ask what kinds of preventive steps they think would be helpful. Parents can also raise the topic in the context of a school’s surveillance tech. When kids are asked their opinion, it helps them open up, Dr. Talib said.

Ask about their peers. Instead of making the conversation about them, a good way to get into a discussion is to ask about others. Dr. Talib suggests saying something like, “Have you ever heard of anyone who cut themselves and you weren’t sure what that was about? I’m happy to talk to you about it.”

Make helplines available. Along with numbers of neighbors or relatives on the fridge, Dr. Talib said, you can post the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line (Text HOME to 741741) so that your child knows there’s someone to call or text if they need help.

Bring in a neutral party. If you suspect your child is struggling but you don’t think your child will open up to you, Dr. Talib suggests asking a trusted third party to check in with your child—it could be a coach, a teacher or a relative.