Today’s alarming statistics look like this:
- 10 million U.S. teens ages 13-18 suffer from depression, anxiety, ADHD, or bipolar disorder
- Each day, more than 3,000 high school students try to end their own lives
- Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for 10-19 year-old youth
- One in five teens has or will have a serious mental illness
- 70% of students with a mental health disorder do not receive treatment.
During the 2018-2019 school year, experts found 52,000 references to suicide or self-harm in students’ online activity. 6,000 were serious enough to merit immediate attention by the school district. There were also 34,000 references to violence toward others-more than 1,600 of these incidents warranted an immediate call to prevent a more serious incident.
Teachers and administrators may not see the warning signs of anxiety and mental illness in their day-to-day interactions with students. The majority of these students do not show outward signs of their own thoughts or intentions. It should also be noted that the students most in need of help, are the best at hiding it.
Students reveal these behaviors with peers online- in messages, the documents they create and the images they share. Unless closely monitoring what students post online, in the school’s own digital ecosystem, teachers and administrators are unable to see exactly how vulnerable many of their students really are.
To help schools effectively maintain a comprehensive awareness of the levels of stress and anxiety students are experiencing and expressing, there needs to be a system to monitor online activity. This is not to be confused with invading students’ privacy rights. Once online, student data is almost completely in the public domain.
Let’s call this a student safety management system. Carefully combining machine learning algorithms and safety experts’ specific knowledge indicators, this system can serve to help prevention efforts as it monitors online activity.
Machine learning technology watches out for students’ use of words or phrases that could potentially indicate potential harm. If keywords match, trained professionals can evaluate the content to determine whether it poses an actual credible threat. If so, it can be determined how serious or immediate a threat is to school and student safety.
This system can serve as a means to triage student anxiety. Particularly important to note is that since classroom sizes average 25 students per classroom, this type of system helps teachers identify students’ ‘calls for help’. Teachers with limited to no training in psychology and child development, are provided a means to proactively address mental health concerns.
A threat assessment rubric can rate the severity of incidents wherein a flag has been raised in concern for student safety threat levels. Rubrics can rate concerns or threats as Violations, Questionable Content or a Possible Student Situation.
- Violations can indicate the least severe types of incidents. Students receive warnings that they are in violation of school/district Acceptable Use Policy. When these occur, school administrator also receive notices when these occur.
- Questionable Content can indicate incidents that are cause for concern, but do not reveal any imminent threat.
- Possible Student Situations can result in direct, immediate personal notifications by telephone to the school/district’s specified point of contact 24/7.
Having systems of this type, helps schools in their safety planning, and saves time by embedding specific mental health and safety criteria into its web-based infrastructure.
Children and students, digital natives, spend a large portion of their lives online. This includes communication with peers and global sharing. Schools cannot afford to ignore the many potential indicators of student and school safety threats, explicitly or implicitly implied online. Additionally, in this shift to online virtual learning environments, online activity has increased and it is imperative that we empower educators and parents. Communication on accessible resources pertaining to stress and trauma indicators needs to be ongoing and timely.
Parents are thus empowered and are made aware of these threats, in order that they may act in concert with their children’s school. It is unfortunate that in most of the suicides, bullying and mass shootings at school, no one seemed to recognize any signs of distress beforehand.
In a ” State of Student Safety” report, Gaggle, a student safety management program, revealed that during the 2018-2019 school year and the 4.8 million students served, nearly 120,000 instances were classified as Questionable Content. Of these, approximately 14,000 incidents warranted immediate action to keep students safe.
There needs to be a more comprehensive program to help schools identify students in crisis and distress, also woven into the framework of virtual learning. Just as smoke detectors can save many lives, health and safety, it can serve as an alarm that when certain ‘sounds’ are identified, it rings out loudly as a ‘call to action’ by schools. Programs like Gaggle, inform and alert schools on the need for additional services, like counseling or social services. By scanning students’ digital documents, we offer a more effective way that schools promote safety and comprehensive well-being.
Schools save students’ lives by promoting health and wellness, in addition to optimal academic performance. When schools are deliberate and intentional in their stated mission, and their responsibility for the millions of children who pass through its doors, a whole child approach is the best framework of practices.
Social and emotional learning[SEL], bullying awareness, positive behavior intervention and supports, adequate counseling staff, and curriculum programs all focus on fostering student well-being. In this, parents and caregivers are not to be excluded. They too, are experts with knowledge and insights and do significantly influence comprehensive wellness and safety of children at school and home.
If we saved just one student from causing harm to him/herself and/or others, we have finally begun to move in the right direction.
***** www.SchoolSafety.gov has been newly launched to help educators, administrators, parents and law enforcement prepare for and address threats to safety at school.