How PTAs Can Prioritize Student Safety and Privacy Online

Happy female teacher assisting school kids during an e-learning class at elementary school.

[Content warning: This article contains discussion of self-harm and suicide.]

Across the country, young people are experiencing a concerning increase in mental health challenges—so much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association have declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. But in Neosho County, Mo., the number of students requiring hospitalization for mental health crises has dropped significantly and no student has died by suicide in three years.

Neosho County students face the same set of stressors as their peers. One key difference is that the district has invested in a robust suicide prevention plan—and it’s making a big impact. A core component of Neosho’s student support plan is GoGuardian Beacon, which helps schools identify online activity on school-managed devices and accounts that indicates a risk of suicide, self-harm or possible harm to others. Beacon notifies designated responders to quickly activate a school’s response plan and get students help.

“I find the Beacon alerts incredibly helpful, not only for active-planning situations, but also for the kids who are just reaching out and need a little bit of help,” says Neosho Director of School Counseling Tracy Clements. “It has saved the lives of so many kids and improved the quality of life for countless others.”

Student Safety vs Privacy: Can We Have Both?

While Clements, like many other educators, views online safety tools as an important component of their suicide prevention program, these technologies aren’t without controversy. Parents and educators want to protect young people from self-harm and other threats, but they also worry about student privacy—not wanting sensitive information about their children to land in the wrong hands or be used inappropriately.

Micki Young, a parent and PTA volunteer in Grove City, Ohio, wants strong security set up on her children’s computers. “Especially with the rise in depression and suicides, if my kids were to type in something that was potentially triggering, I would expect them to be approached in a way that was appropriate for the situation,” she says. “I have no concerns with it being monitored. It’s your school computer.”

Nicole Perretta, a PTA leader in New York and mother of four, describes herself as a fan of online monitoring and, in particular, is concerned by the real-life impacts of online bullying. “We do a lot of talking about how to be accepting, but that barrier of a screen really does empower some people to say the nastiest things,” she says. “I think that if we could just pay attention to our kids’ mental health as it relates to what they’re doing online, we would be in a better position to head off some of that negativity that follows them throughout the day.”

That said, Perretta is generally cautious about sharing personal data online and wants her children’s school to involve parents in deciding what information is shared beyond school walls. “The school respects FERPA, but sometimes I’m like, I really would have preferred you have asked my permission to share that. I would just like to be able to police what goes out.”

Mary Sotomayor, another New York State PTA leader and mom of two, believes districts have a responsibility to monitor activity on school-issued devices. “If it’s a school-given laptop or computer, there should be no privacy,” she says, but as far as who sees the data, she says, “This should be a conversation between the guidance counselor and the parent. And it should end there.” She doesn’t think that schools or vendors should hold onto records. “All kids make mistakes. They’re children, they’re learning. If you’re going to hold something against me that the school found out about because of my computer when I was 12? Mmmm. That’s kind of scary.”

“There’s going to be some contention around this type of issue,” says Tennessee PTA President Dwight Hunter, “And there should be.” Tennessee PTA successfully advocated for a resolution on data privacy several years ago based on parental concerns about the data privacy policies of outside vendors. They are also supporting and encouraging families to communicate more with their children about online safety and mental health. “Having an open conversation is so key,” says Hunter.

Our Belief: It’s Not an Either/Or

National PTA believes that student safety and privacy don’t have to be in opposition. We support clear privacy and security policies that maintain the confidentiality of sensitive data that students and families share with schools and via online services. At the same time, we believe that technology can be a powerful tool in keeping students safe. The question we think every community should be asking is, “How can families and schools partner to ensure student safety and privacy at the same time?”

Parents can play a role in supporting online safety and privacy practices by speaking up about where school or community communication is lacking on these issues and by advocating for policies that protect both their children’s health and their data.

Does Your School Practice T.A.C.T.?

Teddy Hartman, Head of Privacy at GoGuardian, suggests we think about online safety the same way we think about safety at school. Parents can and should expect schools to keep children safe while in a classroom or on a field trip—that they will be in the company of vetted adults, aboard school buses that have passed inspection, etc. Hartman asks, “If we extend that thinking to the digital learning environment, what sort of expectations do parents have for the school?”

Hartman, a parent and a former educator himself, suggests that parents and PTA leaders start by focusing on four elements collectively known as T.A.C.T.

  • Transparency
    Make sure your school system publicly shares a list of all technology vendors, the data privacy protections each vendor (and the school) has in place, the specifics of when and on which devices the technology will be active, and how these technologies are being used to support student safety. (With GoGuardian Beacon, schools can activate the School Session Indicator, an additional layer of transparency that displays on any device being monitored.)
  • Access
    Schools must be careful in deciding who has access to sensitive student data, and parents have a right to ask who has authorization to view their child’s information at the school and through the vendor. One way to check on a vendor’s data practices is to see whether the vendor has signed into the Student Privacy Pledge or has been certified by a third-party like iKeepSafe.
  • Communication
    Schools should provide information on what parents can expect if their child’s online activity generates an alert. Schools and parents can also help one another by holding community dialogues about suicide and self-harm prevention and by sharing tools to support better mental health. The National PTA Healthy Minds program has resources and guidance for both families and PTA leaders.
  • Teamwork
    Technology is only one piece of student support. Schools should have clearly articulated protocols for how to handle a self-harm notification and a team of mental health professionals trained both on the software and how to respond to alerts.

Protecting students online doesn’t need to be a polarizing issue. Start a conversation with your principal about how your school is putting student safety and privacy into practice. We owe it to our children to take a thoughtful, nuanced approach to their privacy and safety—together.

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GoGuardian is a Proud National Sponsor of PTA. National PTA does not endorse any commercial entity, product or service. No endorsement is implied.

Unite for a Better Internet: Have the Smart Talk

Navigating life online

(Sponsored Post) My boys are nine and eleven-years-old. This means that we’ve had “the talk” — yes, that one about the “birds and the bees.” But in our fast-moving, digital world, where children are engaging more and more on social media, playing online games and reading news online, we need to have a different kind of talk — one that teaches them the rules of the road for navigating life online.

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 50% of children receive their first smartphone by age 11, and 74% have access to laptops and desktops as early as six-years-old. There’s no doubt technology is playing a huge role in our children’s development. It just doesn’t make sense to ignore this enormous part of their lives. Having open and ongoing conversations about online safety and responsibility is essential to the well-being and overall safety of children.

However, when I chat with other parents about having a digital safety talk with our kids, I get the sense they find it overwhelming because they don’t know what topics to cover. And that’s understandable. How can we possibly know how to approach talking about everything our kids see online when we didn’t grow up with the same devices, sites and apps they use today? Not to mention the fact that parents often tell me that they also feel pressured to buy their kids new devices that their peers and classmates are using, regardless of whether or not their kids are ready for that kind of responsibility.

Fortunately, there’s a free, online tool to help families navigate these issues and talk about digital safety. It’s called The Smart Talk. National PTA and LifeLock developed it for families who want their digitally savvy kids to learn and have fun through technology, but also make sure that they are building positive habits to stay safe and be responsible online. The Smart Talk gives families an opportunity to talk about the issues that can come up as kids use smartphones, social media and apps — while they’re still developing emotional intelligence skills.

Since the tool is online, you can have The Smart Talk as a family whenever it works best for you. After developing an agreement together, you can print a copy of the agreement, hang it where you’ll see it (like on your fridge) and revisit as needed.

I’ve had The Smart Talk with my each of my boys — and they even enjoyed it (at least more than they enjoyed having that other talk)!  We plan on regularly checking in on our digital safety agreements. When that happens, I’m sure they’ll teach me a new thing or two, and we’ll have to evolve our agreements accordingly.

Join me in partnering up with your kids as we try to make the internet better and safer — have The Smart Talk tonight.

Kim Allman is the Vice President of Government Affairs and Corporate Social Responsibility at Lifelock.

Four Tips to Tougher Passwords

LifeLock is a financial sponsor of National PTA, and has been invited to submit a blog post as part of their engagement with PTA. National PTA does not endorse any commercial entity, product, or service, and no endorsement is implied by this content.

If you’re making an effort to use stronger, more complex passwords on your online accounts, good for you! But be careful—a longer password isn’t always a stronger one.

Here’s what I mean. “123456” is an excellent example of a weak password. Changing it to “12345678” certainly makes it longer, but not necessarily any stronger. And changing “password” to “password123” doesn’t increase its strength by much either.

Longer is better, but weak is wshutterstock_242345959eak—no matter a password’s length—particularly if a password incorporates a simple pattern. To improve your passwords, you need to add complexity. Here are four tips to help you do so:

Randomize it
Consider using a randomized series of characters that incorporate a mix of letters (both uppercase and lowercase), numbers and symbols. While long words such as your hometown or company name could be easy for others to decipher, a random variety of characters will leave them guessing.

An easy way to remember a password that is random and difficult to decode is to create a sentence and then list characters that represent the sentence. For example, you can use a sentence like, “My favorite place is the beach,” and break it down into something like, “mFp1StB!” As you’ll read here, LifeLock educational advisor Jean Chatzky takes a similar approach for her passwords.

Variety is the spice of, um, passwords
It’s important to use different passwords for each account you have for obvious reasons. If someone guesses one password, it’ll be easier for that person to hack into your other accounts with the same password.

Update ‘em
When you update a password—for instance, following a data breach—it’s easy to fall back on ones you’ve already used. Don’t do it. Work to keep each password fresh and unique—like you!—and, of course, strong and complex.

Consider a password management app
Password management applications act like a digital wallet, storing your personal passwords, login details and other information in one place. All you need to remember is one strong password that allows you to log in to the password management app itself. There are many on the market, so search and see which one may work best for you. Learn more in this LifeLock UnLocked blog post from the Identity Theft Resource Center.

SPECIAL OFFER
Learn more about a special offer from LifeLock for PTA members and families.


Cory Warren is the blog editor of LifeLock UnLocked.

 

 

 

 

The Smart Talk Holiday Gift Tags

The-Smart-Talk-Holiday-Tags-Horizontal-Wide-750x313Digital devices are topping holiday wish lists for many kids this year. Are you considering giving the gift of technology this year? Perhaps you are upgrading your smartphone and passing down your old phone to your child. Before your child starts using their new (or new used) smart device it’s important to set some smart ground rules.

While many new devices come with instruction booklets- they don’t cover things like who your kid should be “friending” or “following” and when they should share texts with a trusted adult. It’s up to parents to have clear conversations with their kids about using technology responsibly and that can leave many parents wondering where to start. The good news is that there’s a tool that makes the whole process a no-brainer.

LifeLock and the National PTA recently teamed up to create The Smart Talk, a free, online toolkit to help you set up—with your child—some technology ground rules. The goal? A healthier relationship with technology.

Just sit down with your child and review a series of questions on a variety of important, tech topics—from privacy to respect, from apps to social media. In about 15 minutes, you’ll have an agreement you can print, sign and post on the fridge for easy reference.

And just in time for the holidays, we also have gift tags that you can use to remind your family to talk about technology before the fun and games begin. Just print and use as tags on all your tech gifts!

Have a great holiday—and kick off the New Year with The Smart Talk!


Erin Thwaites is the Associate Manager, Health & Safety at National PTA.