HASD alerts saving students

It’s a common policy for school districts to provide personal computer tablets to students, but when officials looked into how students were using them, what they found was eye-opening.

Junior and senior high school students in the Hollidaysburg Area School District have district-issued Chromebooks, and the district uses a collection of new software programs that scans student emails and monitors chat rooms. It has increased the workload for administrators, raised some questions of privacy and saved lives of students, school officials said.

Hollidaysburg’s Director of Technology Justin Arthur said he firmly believes alerts to administrators saved some students’ lives.

“I honestly feel there are students who are still with us today because of our efforts,” he said.

There were more than 1,000 total alerts to Hollidaysburg Area administrators in the past school year. The alerts detected everything from minor profanity to immediate threats to students.

In the worst cases, administrators were alerted to abusive family situations, planned attempts at suicide, student-produced explicit images and answers to adult Craigslist ads.

In one case, emails sent to a student were flagged as a possible impersonation of a minor.

The email thread was flagged for content, and upon further review, the information provided had contradictory inconsistencies that made it obvious that the person wasn’t the minor they said they were.

Another case involved a product that is geared toward getting and providing homework help.

“However, we had several incidents where the site’s users were using the platform to facilitate things that are more geared toward adult dating websites,” Arthur said.“Our fear in both of these cases was that all of the warning signs were there, students had no idea who they were communicating with, and there were flaws in the student perception versus the actual information provided by the third party.”

There were no arrests in those incidents. Administra­tors were able to intervene early in the process before anything reportable happened, Arthur said.

Hollidaysburg Area secondary students create, edit and send about 225,000 documents a month. And they visit more than 1.2 million websites per month.

Some parents and students have had privacy concerns.

The district’s acceptable-use policy and the Chrome­book handbook state that there is zero expectation of privacy with respect to district technology resources. The district holds a Chrome­book parent night in August, and administrators meet with students when they receive their Chrome­books to explain potential issues.

“I have had a handful of parents contact me with respect to privacy concerns over the last two years; however, that number is far outweighed by the number of parents and families who thank us on a regular basis for our efforts in keeping their students safe,” Arthur said.

Only communications directly related to the situation in question are reviewed. The software targets key words — it does not collect data.

In cases that resulted in administrators’ intervention to prevent self harm, the software alerted administrators to Google searches including terms like “the quickest and painless way to take your life,” Arthur said.

But there have been false positives. The software’s algorithms are not flawless.

Hollidaysburg Borough Police Chief Rodney Estep Jr. was brought in to address a possible explicit photo of a minor. However, it turned out to be a photo of a student in a bathing suit on vacation that had tripped the software when the student backed up a phone by plugging it into a district computer, Estep said.

Aside from that false positive, Estep said the software has resulted in several cases involving explicit images that led to allegations and charges against students.

In cases where the district’s security software programs flag student produced files, potential pornographic pictures of minors are omitted from the report and notification that administrators receive. Only law enforcement is legally permitted to look at material that might contain sexual images of a minor. Administrators relay the information to Hollidays­burg Borough police.

“They come in and are on the phone with the District Attorney deciding whether it’s criminal or not. The number of times I heard ‘I’ll get back to you after I talk to the DA’ has been eye-opening. This is not little stuff,” Arthur said.

Police have entered Hollidaysburg Area schools to investigate a flagged file “more times than what we would like to be there,” Estep said in a phone interview.

Sometimes incidents snowball out of control, he said, when one student sends an inappropriate image either produced directly by the student or from the internet.

“They think it’s funny, and that friend sends it to another and so on,” Estep said.

“Reporting software is new, so we are catching more than we had in the past. We have tools in place now to catch it.”

Altoona Area also uses software to monitor student activity, but Altoona Area school officials declined to share the data.

“All because of the security of it, the software is important to have, but we don’t want to talk about it for security reasons,” Altoona Area Com­munity Relations Director Paula Foreman said, relaying a message from Superinten­dent Charles Prijatelj.

At Hollidaysburg, Senior High School Assistant Princi­pal Mark Harrington and Junior High School Principal Robert Heinrich made a public presentation with Arthur last week to the school board.

The director of technology, principals, counselors and school psychologists receive alerts at all times of the day and night, including weekends and vacations.

“It’s become a 24-7 job and it’s high stress because it’s the lives of kids and it’s a lot of responsibility,” Arthur said.

Aside from alerts by the district’s collection of security software, the 1,000 total alerts received by Hollidaysburg Area this year also includes reports made to the state’s Safe2Say program. Since the state program began in January, 125 reports from Hollidaysburg Area have been made. The anonymous tips go to the office of the Attorney General, the district, and if serious enough, to police.

That hotline tipped the district off to 14 fights and nine planned attempts at suicide.

“This is working in our district,” Arthur said.

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