Why schools should monitor what students do online

Here’s how one Texas district is using technology to detect threats early and support student safety
By: | December 6, 2019
Cody Walker is the technology director at West Rusk County Consolidated ISD in Texas.

Cody Walker is the technology director at West Rusk County Consolidated ISD in Texas.

Student safety is one of the biggest concerns for school administrators, and there are multiple ways to address it. One is by hardening buildings through facility upgrades, including bullet-proof glass and metal detectors. Administrators can also implement less-visible preventative measures, such as mental health services and social-emotional learning programming. Lastly, they can use technology to help keep an eye on students’ online activity so they can identify potential threats or safety concerns early. 

Each of these areas of school safety has merit and can be addressed in different ways, to different degrees and in different combinations to meet the needs of an individual building or district. I’m a technology director for West Rusk County Consolidated ISD in Texas, so I will address the technology angle.

Detecting threats early

When acts of violence occur, the attacker often leaves a digital trail that, had it been detected earlier, could have potentially helped teachers, parents and administrators intervene. For instance, perhaps the person had been posting hostile comments on social media or rants in an online forum. Or the person’s search history contained clues that could have foreshadowed an incident. 

The same concept applies for other types of student safety concerns. If a student is being bullied or has an eating disorder or is having suicidal thoughts, there is often digital evidence. The good news is that technology directors, teachers and school administrators can be proactive in detecting these warning signs by adopting monitoring technology. 

Read: How K-12 districts use K-9s for security

Programs and software available today can help schools monitor students’ use of devices while on the school network. This includes monitoring what students are searching for on the internet, as well as the emails or instant messages they send to classmates. Schools should take advantage of this type of technology because it can be both a preventative and an investigative tool. For example, at my school district, software has provided us with information on several occasions that led to investigations. In one case, a student was going online during school hours to facilitate drug deals. We were able to use the software to pull records of his online activity, and we could view a time-stamped screen shot of his online interactions to confirm what he was doing during school hours. 

In other instances, we have used monitoring technology as a preventative tool. One time, we received alerts through the software that indicated a situation of cyberbullying. It turned out that several students were bullying another student in an online forum. The early detection allowed us to be proactive about identifying and dealing with them before the situation got out of hand. 

Monitoring tech: 4 key considerations

For district leaders looking to add monitoring technology as part of their plans to support school safety, here are four considerations:

  1. Ensure that there is a way for students to anonymously report concerns online.
  2. Offer digital citizenship lessons to help students learn how to use technology in a safe and appropriate manner. This is key in a 1-to-1 environment.
  3. Hold information nights for families and send home materials with students to explain what monitoring technology is and how it will be used. This encourages students to be good digital citizens and also alleviates concerns of parents. Address how the school handles student data and privacy issues.
  4. Make sure to implement cross-platform monitoring software. This provides flexibility if students are using different devices.

As more and more school districts offer laptops, Chromebooks or other devices for students to use in the classroom, it’s becoming even more important for school leaders to have a way to monitor how students are using those devices. Monitoring software can allow leaders to be proactive about preventing or addressing concerning behavior before it gets out of hand. It can also help school personnel, or law enforcement, find evidence they need to investigate a potential threat. Is an important addition to any school safety plan.

Cody Walker is the technology director at West Rusk County Consolidated ISD in Texas.

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