At so many school districts across the country, student safety extends beyond campuses and includes technology that students use on a daily basis. For years, this has been the approach at the McMinn County School System where Jill Pierce, Chief Technology Officer, is a leader in the district’s efforts around student and school safety.
“Our main objective is to give students a safe place and then give them the best education possible,” she said. “Because if our students don’t feel safe, they’re not going to learn.”
Jill believes that educators first must admit that students today learn with technology thus safety has to be a top priority. She suggests starting with a safety assessment, or, more simply, a question: What are you trying to keep students safe from?
“There’s a wide gap in districts with some being more open while others lock down everything,” she said. “Before you can purchase or use tools to keep students safe, you need to know what safety means, for instance, gambling, pornography, bullying threats on social media; it’s a long list.”
While most school districts start with a website filter to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), Jill believes they learn very soon that more is needed, including keeping students safe on communication and collaboration tools such as Office 365. McMinn County Schools uses Gaggle Safety Management to keep students safe on school-provided email and file sharing on OneDrive.
The McMinn County School System can identify students at risk, sometimes in unique ways. “Kids like to brag about the bad stuff they are doing, and we can get that information ahead of time,” said Jill. “Gaggle saves us time and money and keeps us focused on the education of the child, not filtering a child.”
Notifications of violations of the school district’s Acceptable Use Procedures—for instance when students use profanity—go directly to the respective student. “I track how much money we save not needing to have someone look for these less serious concerns,” said Jill. She also measures how the direct-to-student notifications deter them from continuing bad behaviors. “I can go to the Gaggle Safety Management Dashboard and see that it generally doesn’t happen again.”
For more serious concerns, including students who could be in imminent danger, Gaggle helps McMinn County Schools identify those incidents allowing administrators to address immediately each situation. “We have a great relationship with law enforcement, but we feel very strongly that we want to assess each situation and make sure we’re giving that student the help that he or she needs. We don’t send anything directly to law enforcement unless it’s a threat because we feel like we need to be reasonable.”
McMinn County Schools also uses digital citizenship curriculum from Common Sense Education to complement its safety efforts. “Educating kids and our faculty is as important as monitoring,” said Jill. “I don’t want to short-change that.”
As more school districts ramp up efforts around physical school safety with more cameras, access controls and other considerations, Jill suggests making sure your vendors want to work with you as a partner in student and school safety. “I try to make every vendor a partner,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process because our kids are so smart. We want to make sure we have vendors that can work with us when something comes up that could be unique to McMinn County. Gaggle is one of those partners.”