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How Mason City Schools Is Using Technology To Monitor Students' Mental Health


Like a lot of students these days, a lot of kids in Mason, Ohio, are sad and anxious. And they’re talking about it on the internet, saying things like this:

"I have no friends. How can I make friends?" Or "I’m feeling alone. I am hopeless. I don’t have a reason to live."

Mason started using technology to track students' online activity years ago. Mostly to make sure they weren’t looking at inappropriate content. Or talking about violence.

But now the schools are monitoring students to try to figure out who might be heading for a mental health crisis.

"It gives us insight into what the student's thinking that we otherwise would not see or hear," says Nicole Pfirman, mental wellness coordinator for schools in Mason.

Mason uses a company called Securly to track its students. Machine learning lets the company flag words that suggest a student is thinking about hurting him or herself, or otherwise in trouble, and then notifies the school district so it can intervene.

"It's not a magic wand, it's not going to prevent everything in a school, but it's going to give schools a lot more information than they ever had before and it's gonna be good information that they can go and have a conversation with a student about," says Mike Jolley, who is in charge of K-12 safety at Securly.

Jolley says that around the country, Securly's technology has been flagging more and more younger kids.

The mental health struggles of school kids mean a business opportunity for companies like Securly. More and more are marketing themselves as a way to track students' mental health. Here's one line from a promotional ad from the company Gaggle:

"[In the last school year,] Gaggle identified 64,000 student references to suicide and self-harm. Each reference is a cry for help."

It's a persuasive message. Gaggle says its customer base regularly grows between 20 and 25 percent a year. And grew even more than that last year.

On its website, Gaggle claims to have helped school districts "save the lives of 927 students." But it's hard to know what that actually means or how it gets counted.

Companies like Gaggle and Securly offer lots of anecdotes about kids they've helped. But even they acknowledge nobody really knows how well these programs prevent self-harm or suicide.

Ellen Yan directs Beacon. That’s the division that tracks student suicide risk at another monitoring company, GoGuardian.

"There is honestly not a lot of data at the national level around in terms of suicide prevention," she says. 

One reason there's not a lot of data is that using the technology this way is still pretty new. And it's hard to prove that the technology tracking stopped a kid from hurting themselves.  

Plus the companies don't see everything students are doing online. One company might not see posts on social media. Another could miss internet searches.

Programs can also trigger false alarms: a student who's writing a paper about Romeo and Juliet, say, or gun control. (For its part, Securly says its technology is able to differentiate between a search out of curiosity and a genuine crisis.)

The cost of this kind of surveillance varies from company to company and district to district. Jolley says Securly's services range from a dollar a student for the basic model to more than $15 a student for the higher end.

Nicole Pfirman says that in Mason, it's money well spent. She says there have been times at the Mason schools that an alert saved a kid's life.

"Had we have not been able to get the alert, respond to the alert, and put the appropriate supports in place, say on a Friday night," she says. "It is oftentimes difficult to think about what may have happened before Monday."

Mason partners with therapists from Cincinnati Children's Hospital. And over the last year, Pfirman and her team have ended up connecting a lot more students to that program.

Meanwhile, the technology companies continue to position themselves on the front lines of student mental health. The latest example? This fall, Gaggle announced a new product line. It will now contract with school districts to connect them with therapists for students who need mental health care.

This article first appeared on American Public Media and has been adapted for online.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Alisa Roth