Anchorage School District pleased with new student safety monitoring program

Published: Nov. 12, 2020 at 8:38 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When the Anchorage School District decided to start the new school year online this fall, they also had to make sure that over 30,000 students would be properly monitored on district-owned devices. ASD first noticed the possible dilemma when COVID-19 swung its first punch this spring, bringing in-person learning to a halt.

This summer, with the prospects of online learning continuing, ASD partnered with Gaggle.

“What Gaggle does is help us monitor what students are doing on the google academic suite, what they are writing in google docs, spreadsheets they are creating, forms, things of that nature,” ASD Director of Secondary Education Joe Zawodny said. “So we can help students who are saying or indicating something that might speak to a social or emotional need that they may have.”

Gaggle works with the school district’s Google Chromebooks and essentially keeps track of every item every student posts into the district’s Google Cloud.

“What happens is when a student creates something in a Chromebook and they go to turn it in, it gets saved to google cloud,” ASD Director of IT Security Jack Johnson said. “And so that’s where there is an opportunity to review the content and make sure it’s appropriate.”

Gaggle monitors the content and flags it as yellow, orange or red. Red being the most suspicious.

“So content like self-harm or violence to others, drug and alcohol abuse, potentially pornography, there’s really any kind of content that you can imagine that might be concerning in a school setting and would be equally concerning in the google docs we provide,” Johnson said.

The program helps ASD administrators filter out what students may be going through a rough time.

“When students are in classrooms and they have access to their school counselors, it’s really easy for them to ask for help or just walk down the hall and get the support they need. When we moved to an online setting, it was more difficult for that to happen and so we just felt we had a responsibility from a district’s side to keep monitoring students to make sure they had the help they need," Zawodny said.

The red-flagged postings are looked over by a group of trained professionals who determine what to do next. If the incident or threat is serious enough, APD’s student resource officers are called in to help.

“The real issue is obscene photographs being shared and some of the things students don’t understand is those things are not okay and some of those things could have serious consequences,” Sgt. Rayne Reynolds with the APD School Resource Officer Unit said. “When somebody shares a nude photo or obscene photo with somebody else, that audience may have been one person but where the pitfalls for the student is, is that students share it with another and before you know it could be shared 20 times.”

Reynolds says in these incidents, where his team is called in, it’s not so much about discipline as it is education.

“We have a responsibility as adults to teach our children the right ways,” Reynolds said. “It can happen out on the playground, it can happen in the classroom or outside of that and in this case, it’s happening on the computer. Them sharing these images, it’s unlawful abuse of a minor and it could have serious consequences down the road. Our goal is to educate and our goal is to use it as teaching moments. Our goal is not to have it be criminal in any way."

While the Anchorage School District is carefully monitoring over 30,000 students, Johnson says that since July, only 50 postings have been red-flagged.

“We’re doing our best to respond to any student who may be in some sort of crisis,” Johnson said. “One of the things gaggle really does is help illuminate the students who might be in crisis when they are sharing those concerns via google docs, that helps us respond to those students as quickly as possible.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the amount of red-flagged postings. Though initial copy stated that 550 postings had been red-flagged, citing ASD Director of IT Security Jack Johnson, a clarification from the school district sent Friday said the correct number of red-flagged postings was 50; 500 of the postings were actually orange-flagged.

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