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Episode 108: New Technology Helping to Keep Students Safe

It is designed to help keep students safe in and outside of school. On this episode of the Supercast, we talk about new technology called “Bark,” which helps to detect signs of things like cyberbullying, suicidal ideation and threats of school violence. Listen and find out how this new technology is already proving successful in saving lives in Jordan School District.

Audio Transcription

Anthony Godfrey:
Hello and welcome to the Supercast. I'm your host, Superintendent Anthony Godfrey. It's a program designed to help keep students safe in and outside of school. On this episode of the Supercast, we talk about new technology called BARK, which helps to detect signs of things like cyber bullying, suicidal ideation, and threats of school violence. Listen, and find out how this new technology is already proving successful in saving lives in Jordan School District. We're here today with Angie Rasmussen, our new specialist working with the BARK program here in Jordan School District. Angie, thanks for joining us.

Angie Rasmussen:
Thanks for having me.

Anthony Godfrey:
Most people don't know what the BARK program is. Let's just start off by having you talk just generally about what it's designed to do.

Angie Rasmussen:
Okay. So it is a software that we have monitoring Google accounts in Jordan School District. So parents can buy it themselves to monitor their students on their electronic devices, but we use it for our school purposes to help flag students who may need some extra support.

Anthony Godfrey:
Just as a clarification for our listeners. I want to make sure that everyone understands that this is only monitoring of school accounts. So chats, emails, documents that are submitted through Google docs, that sort of thing, right?

Angie Rasmussen:
Correct. Yes, so it has to be through their my.jordandistrict.org Google account.

Anthony Godfrey:
We have accounts for students in elementary, middle and high schools so really this reaches students of all ages. 

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes, it does. 

Anthony Godfrey:
Tell me a little bit about how the BARK program works.

Angie Rasmussen:
So it has artificial intelligence that will screen or flag anything in these Google documents, chats, emails, that could be concerning. There's different categories like bullying or suicidal ideation, self-harm, violence, among others. It will categorize the alert and it will also say if it's severe or non-severe. Then there is an imminent category, but those are flagged as severe and then they become phone calls as well.

Anthony Godfrey:
So when you go through the program, tell us a little bit about what your interaction is with the alerts and how the process works.

Angie Rasmussen:
So they will take a snippet of what they flag as concerning, and sometimes it's highlighted with certain areas that they're trying to show me, this is what we flagged. Then I can look at it and see the context. I can see if it's two people talking to each other in an email or in a chat and get an idea of what maybe the conversation is. A lot of Google docs are used as journal entries or they will chat in real time with each other on a Google doc, the students will. It’s a way to communicate, so it will come in those formats. A lot of times if they're expressing something that could be concerning to adults, that we want to make those connections with kids and help them to prevent anything from becoming a further situation that either leads to violence or additional suicidal ideation.

Anthony Godfrey:
Now tell me again, the categories were non-severe severe and imminent, correct?

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes, that's correct. 

Anthony Godfrey:
Can you tell us what the process is for dealing with issues in all three categories? 

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes. So non severe, I usually will look at with certain keywords like self-harm or depression, anxiety, because those ones can sometimes be flagged as non severe if they're not using the right words. And so I will still look at those as severe because I want to make sure that I see them. Others will be if there are like two kids who are maybe talking and are joking around and it doesn't have any risk factors to it. I will just document those so I can access them later, but I don't necessarily do anything with it. It's kind of documented. I don't push them to the school is basically what I'm saying.

If it's severe, I can also do that where I kind of look into it and say, oh, this isn't a problem. The example I used was they were playing a game in class and they were talking about this game and she got a high score. Then the kid responded back something about being high and they were talking about the score still, but the program flagged the word high as intoxicated, so that was not necessarily what the context was. So I did not pass that on because it was non-threatening, it was about a game and score.

When it is something that I feel that the school personnel should be aware of and help them to support the student, then I will take the information I have and let the relevant person know whether that's an administrator or a school counselor or a social worker. Then we have some dialogue on how to help the student or support the student, or if they have more questions about how it could be handled, then we can troubleshoot with that. If it's imminent, it is usually a phone call from BARK. So they won't just email me or flag it. They will text me and call me. And if I don't answer, then it's set up to call local authorities for a wellness check.

Anthony Godfrey:
So it can be really an alarm about something that could be happening right away. Have we had a few of those?

Angie Rasmussen:
We have. Since I've been working with the program, which was September 23rd, I've had two where they did call me. One was during school hours on a business day. And then another one was actually over the weekend on a Sunday.

Anthony Godfrey:
Did we get authorities out, parents involved? What happens from there after your call comes from BARK?

Angie Rasmussen:
So I'll take the call and let them know that I'm aware of it, that I'll handle it from there, so they don't dispatch police because then I can look at it. The one during business hours, I worked with the administrators at the school and we got a hold of parents that way. If it's not during business hours and it's an imminent threat, I will call parents directly. If I can't get a hold of them, then I will try to get a wellness check from the police, a non-emergency phone call to go out and visit with the student. But if I can get a hold of the parents and confirm that the student’s safe, then I don't call the police, unless it's something that was further along the line that I would have to do that.

Anthony Godfrey:
So of course, parents are always the first call, and then if we can't reach them, then we involve the police as necessary. 

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes, and then I also make sure administration knows, so they can follow up with the families and make sure supports are in place at school afterwards.

Anthony Godfrey:
Right. Because it's not just in the moment that we need to look at that. But when you look at the kind of support that we need to provide for the individual longer-term. Even before you came and we hadn't monitored to that degree, I know that we had some serious situations that we were alerted to by BARK.

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes, and they did send authorities because we didn't have anyone set up to answer the phone call at the time. I'm familiar with that because I can see that from the past as well, because they had it active for a little bit to test it. It is very helpful in being proactive and preventing emergency situations.

Anthony Godfrey:
You talked about supporting the school and calling them and contacting them about what to do next. That's because you're not just monitoring this, you have a background that helps you really address the problems as well.

Angie Rasmussen:
Correct. So I have been a school counselor since 2008, but also a school administrator. So I can see kind of that mental health side of it, but also the side where administrators are in the building trying to balance and juggle things, but also there to respond if there's crisis situations.

Anthony Godfrey:
We're very fortunate to have you in the position to help filter through the alerts that come in, but also provide support to the parents, administrators, and other authorities that you work with.

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes, and I envision it as a way to best support families in our communities. So although it comes from a place of education, I think it will help also make those connections in the buildings. If we don't know, students maybe are really seeking those connections in our schools. It's a way to kind of, oh, this person might need an extra check-in or something. They're not on our radar. I don't know them, but I really would like to get to know them and see, you know, who they are.

Anthony Godfrey:
Connecting students to resources as part of taking good care of them. 

Stay with us. When we come back more on the technology that is keeping students safe in and outside of school.

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Anthony Godfrey:
Tell me, what would you say parents need to be aware of as they're thinking about monitoring and being aware of their students' communications?

Angie Rasmussen:
As far as we go here at Jordan School District, I think it's coming from a place of care and concern. I think that as a parent myself, whenever another adult from my kid's school reaches out to me, I would feel grateful that there is that other set of eyes, or there is somebody looking out for my kid. I want everyone to know that it's not a gotcha type thing. We're not looking for somebody to get in trouble or looking at their conversations to, you know, do anything that's going to punish them. We're not being punitive, I guess what I'm trying to say. We're trying to have their best interest in mind, and we won't won't share information with other people, only the relevant parties, the adults in the building that are directly associated with those kids. So like, you know, the administrators, or their school counselor. When talking with parents, it's like, these are the people that will know because this is how they can help you. So they know it's not something that everyone knows. I think privacy is a big factor of the whole process. Privacy and not being punitive.

Anthony Godfrey:
No, that's really the combination. It's a support because not every student that needs help will seek it. It's a chance for us to be sure that they have the help and assistance that they need.

Angie Rasmussen:
Luckily students, a lot of times will feel comfortable telling friends in these ways. I mean, they're not talking in person, they're telling each other over these chats or emails. So I think that's still a great thing as long as they can get adult help when it's needed.

Anthony Godfrey:
Right. It's those student interactions with each other that probably produce a lot of the alerts where they're talking to each other, not just writing on their own. I have to admit, I've never thought of the idea of writing someone right within a Google document. That's pretty immediate communication because you don't even have the chance to decide, ‘ok, I've crafted what I'm going to say. Send’ they're just watching you and you type it. So that's real time.

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes, and I think they think, because we're old, we don't know about it.

Anthony Godfrey:
Well, I just admitted that I’m old enough not to know about it so thank you for the education. Now this isn't a replacement for other things that we do to connect with students, see if they need help, be sure that we're aware of how they're feeling and how they're doing as educators and as parents.

Angie Rasmussen:
Right. It's actually just an additional safety net. So other things that are already in place, even, you know, at home, that doesn't have anything to do with us. We don't regulate at home activities. If they are at home, but using their account for Jordan school, that is still something we would see, and, again, only get involved if it's something we can help with. It's just an additional support that is added as a safety measure. It's a safety net to try and help students out when they might be struggling to connect with someone about something that they need help with.

Anthony Godfrey:
Does the program sometimes over identify issues?

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes. Not sometimes, it always does. So it's nice to have that, to have myself, a human looking at it, to see what the actual conversation could be considered and if it is something that's helpful for a student or not. So, you know, technology is great, but humans are still better. And, families making connections with their families at home is still better than anything else.

Anthony Godfrey:
That's a good reminder as well. This isn't someone sitting at BARK central going through all of these emails, this is an automated process. You receive the alerts and then you, as the experienced, well-educated human goes through the results and determines whether there is in fact a problem.

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes. And then it gives me the opportunity to collaborate with the professionals in their building, who know the kids potentially, and know the community and know their buildings the best. We can kind of bounce ideas off each other. Like this is the way it looked to me, you know them, do you think this is something that you would find useful to help that student?

Anthony Godfrey:
I'm actually very glad to hear that problems are over-identified and that we have a lot of false positives if you will, because it's much better than missing something.

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes. I agree with you a hundred percent. Something may look like an issue and if it's not, that's the best case scenario.

Anthony Godfrey:
Well, with nearly 58,000 students, there's a lot to sort through and there's a lot to be aware of. What's interesting to me is that not only are you able to help individual students, but I can imagine that over time, we're going to be able to start to see a pattern and say, ‘Hey, these are some things that students are dealing with. We're starting to see more concerns about this issue or that issue.’ As we look at the alerts that come up from such a large group of students.

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes, it does gather the data. I can look at types of alerts per area too. So I can see if a feeder network has similar issues. You know, if a high school, junior high and elementary system together shares similar issues, we can look at data that shows you that there could be something that administration would want to work on in their school and say, ‘oh, this keeps coming up as a pattern’ and it's showing it's something that you might want to take a look at. What can we do to get something going in your school that might produce positive engagement with students?

Anthony Godfrey:
I really liked that aspect of it. How does it feel to be working with a program like this, having been a counselor and administrator for as long as you have, maybe not using a method like this previously.

Angie Rasmussen:
It's different because again, it's through technology. I find that a lot of the things students talk about are things that I could see them going to their counselor and saying the exact words. I try to put myself in that situation if I were to meet with the student and they told me this, that whatever they're saying, you know, what would I do? Or if it was my own child, what would I do? Then I take that perspective and collaborate with the adults at their school on how to help the student. It's different in that, in that I can reflect before I talk, you know, it's like, it's not happening in real time for me necessarily. So I can see an issue and review my resources and collaborate. When you're in a school, a lot of times things are happening right then in your face, and you don't have as much time to gather composure and think through your different ideas or different ways to help. 

Anthony Godfrey:
I love that. And I think it's exciting to have another way to help students. In the end, really what we're doing is we're trying to improve their lives and sometimes save them. 

Angie Rasmussen:
Yes. That is going to be something I think that down the line, we will notice that these interventions will be life saving.

Anthony Godfrey:
Thank you very much. We're so happy to have you in Jordan District doing this work. I really appreciate your efforts to help support our students in our schools and our families. 

Thanks for joining us on another episode of the Supercast. Remember, education is the most important thing you will do today. We'll see you out there.

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