No parent is prepared to get the call from a school counselor that Amanda Estes received. One morning, the McNiel Middle School counselor phoned to say her sixth-grader had typed, “I want to die,” into a Google search engine on her school-issued Chromebook. Wichita Falls Independent School District’s crisis prevention software, Gaggle, flagged the comment, dispatching an alert to the counselor, who called Ms. Estes before lunch that same morning.
“We were unaware of any problems with her at the time,” said Ms. Estes, a homemaker with six children. She rushed to the school to talk with her daughter. “We found out she was not suicidal. She had been told about the search engine. She understood if she needed help, she could type something to that effect, and she would get help.”
Ms. Estes is just one of many parents who have firsthand knowledge of the effectiveness of WFISD’s early alert system. It works like a personal 9-1-1 system for WFISD, flagging written plans of violence, suicide, porn, and abuse that students type into Google documents on all WFISD-issued Chromebooks, whether they are using them at home or at school.
WFISD counselors and administrators respond to alerts 24/7. “It puts us more in a proactive than reactive state,” said Shonna Norton, WFISD director of social and emotional services. “I know it works. They’ve alerted us, and every single time, it’s been a situation that needed a response.”
This is an era of school life with more mental health issues than ever before. Suicide ranks as the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds. Such serious issues affect students’ school work, said Ms. Norton.
Nationwide, the Gaggle software viewed 3.9 billion items in the 2018–2019 school year, flagging 70 million as suspicious. In 2018–2019, Gaggle’s five million users received 13,000 “immediate action required” alerts. More than 700 lives were saved during the school year, according to its website.
If a student Googles “how to hang myself,” alerts are dispatched via email first to Gaggle representatives—who prescreen and may place a phone call to a school contact if the threat seems immediate—and to a prepared list of school officials.
In a WFISD school, one student was writing a suicide note on his Chromebook in a Google document, and Gaggle flagged the note before he even finished writing it. “Gaggle made the phone call, we called the police and asked them to do a wellness check. The student ended up spending time in a facility that would help him,” said Ms. Norton. Parents are shocked, but grateful, for alerts. “They’re not absent parents,” said Ms. Norton. “Students just don’t share that stuff.”
Ms. Estes considers her experience a success story. The Gaggle alert and McNiel counselor’s phone call prompted her to take her daughter for psychological testing. The 11-year-old, whom her mother had just considered an introvert, was diagnosed as clinically depressed, and she began weekly therapy. “With six children, you think you’ve hit every pothole,” she said. “I’ll forever be thankful.”
Note: This article was written by guest author Ann Work Goodrich from Wichita Falls ISD.