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Schools Turn To Software For Suicide Prevention — But Not Everyone's On Board


Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among youth, but identifying young people at risk is a challenge. Some schools have turned to software programs for help, and proponents say these programs are saving lives. But privacy experts and mental health professionals have concerns. To talk about this, we are with Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. Anya, welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: And you reported about a school here in Southern California that gives laptops to all its students, right? It's a private school. And they install some software on those laptops called GoGuardian. Can you tell us about that?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. GoGuardian is a startup. It's been around for about three years. And there are many security products like it in the market. They are installed on about 3 million school-owned computers and tablets all across the country. And what they do is they make certain sites off-limits - so-called time-wasting sites like Netflix, video games and even porn sites.

And more importantly for this story, they also monitor students' web browsing and their searches. And they do this even when the students are at home on the evenings and the weekends.

MCEVERS: And what kind of activity did the software detect in this case?

KAMENETZ: Well, there's a long list of search terms that are automatically flagged, and that can included things related to bullying or related to sexually transmitted diseases or drugs. In this particular incident at this school, there was a term related to suicide.

And then when the school's IT director called up that student's browsing history and the other related searches, they found, you know, this is very detailed. The student had been going into detail about, you know, methods of self-harm and various terms that related to serious issues that the student was going through.

MCEVERS: I mean, you talk about somebody going in and monitoring a student's activity online. Doesn't this raise concerns about monitoring students?

KAMENETZ: You know, Kelly, I personally have been mulling this over ever since I heard about this story. And I spoke to both Elana Zeide, who's a student privacy expert, and Carolyn Stone, who's the ethics chair of the American School Counselor Association. And they both said pretty much the same thing.

On the one hand, yes, student safety needs to be taken very seriously. And in fact, mentions of suicide might be important enough to ignore or put on hold the issues of privacy. On the other hand, you know, it does just feel really intrusive for a young person's internet use to be monitored 24/7.

And because of the structure of this software program, it also puts these school IT directors, who are not mental professionals, in the position of basically eavesdropping on students and then in making their own judgments called about how to respond. And you could see - you know, in these cases, there are happy endings, but you could also see how that could go wrong.

MCEVERS: And is there a sense that some students would be monitored more than others?

KAMENETZ: Well, that's a really interesting point. You know, these are school-owned computers. And so who is it that is likely to have access to the Internet only through school-owned computers? It's probably lower-income students, especially at public schools. And students who have their own devices, you know, they're left to their own devices, right? They have...


KAMENETZ: ...Much more freedom.

MCEVERS: And so what happened in the case of this particular student where the student's activity was monitored and the guidance counselors were contacted?

KAMENETZ: Well, the guidance counselors ended up calling the student in for, you know, a counseling session. And the student revealed some serious issues that they had been going through. And I think everybody pretty much felt that his was a success story in the sense that the student, you know, might have been going through this alone if it hadn't been for the school IT director who had figured this out.

MCEVERS: And this wasn't the only student who was going through similar issues. Is that right?

KAMENETZ: That's right. In fact, at this school alone, this school in California, this has happened three separate times. At another school district in southwest Missouri, they said that it happens about once every semester.

MCEVERS: That's Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. Thank you.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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