Guest-post – The opinions expressed in the article below do not necessarily reflect the view of Quilliam.

This blog post was authored by Impero Software: www.imperosoftware.co.uk

School safeguarding in a digital age

The bell rings, doors slam, chairs scrape across the floor and for the next seven hours, the school takes on the colossal responsibility of safeguarding some 2000 students. In days gone by this meant watching over students, keeping them inside the school gates (while keeping strangers out) and listening out for clues that may indicate a problem. Then the internet happened. Students suddenly had access to everything and everyone from within school grounds and the concept of safeguarding took on a whole new dimension.

The risks presented by the online world are vast and young people are often naïve to the dangers. These dangers can include; grooming, cyberbullying, sexting, access to information that could fuel bad decisions (eating disorders, self-harm, suicide) and in recent years radicalisation. As these risks grow and evolve, schools are playing catch-up in a bid to stay ahead of the changes and keep students safe.

How can technology help?

In response to the latest online threat, in June 2015 Impero launched an anti-terrorism, extremism and radicalisation keyword detection library, as part of its classroom management and online safety solution, Impero Education Pro. Working with Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank, over 1,000 words and phrases relating to terrorism, extremism and radicalisation were compiled and uploaded to Impero’s online safety engine for beta testing. The move attracted a huge amount of global press and sparked the age old debate around the ethics of online monitoring in schools.

However, the concept of online monitoring, as a safeguarding measure in schools is nothing new and even though the nature of this latest threat is relatively recent, it’s simply the latest in a long line of safeguarding issues facing schools today. This keyword library from Impero is the latest addition to a whole host of other policies which include; adult content, self-harm, eating disorders, sexting, grooming, suicide, cyberbullying, racism and homophobia.

The importance of monitoring

These policies work by detecting the use of keywords or phrases that may give cause for concern. If one of the phrases is detected on a device – be it typed in an email, on social media, in a search engine, or present on a website or in a url – it takes a screen shot or video capture of the device, providing the school with ‘who, what, where’ style information. This can be used to open up dialogues with students and safeguard as appropriate. It’s all about identifying and supporting children before things potentially escalate.

Teaching staff can’t be expected to be experts in all safeguarding issues, so all terms are weighted in terms of severity. Each term comes with a full explanation of why it is of significance and what risk it may potentially expose, helping staff to feel more confident in having conversations with students.

Often schools will address e-safety with filtering software, essentially blocking access to certain websites and online content that are deemed inappropriate. The problem here is that issues can often go undetected and early warning signs can be missed. In terms of radicalisation, homophobia and racism it is really important to ensure children hear counter narratives to extremist views. The software can help schools to identify which topics/themes may need to be addressed as part of the wider citizenship or PHSE curriculum, or with individuals in private. One Impero customer that wishes to remain anonymous was able to use these keyword libraries to intervene in a suicide attempt involving a 14 year old boy; “the pupil in question was a model student and completely off our radar, we hadn’t had the software long but it flagged up some behaviour that prompted us to intervene and speak to the individual. It turned out he was having some problems, didn’t know how to deal with them and was considering suicide. We were able to step in and give him the support he needed, though we’re well aware that the story could have had a very different ending” says the school.

Keeping students safe

Monitoring in schools is not about criminalising students and it’s not about spying. The ability to monitor online behaviour, with tools like Impero, simply levels the playing field as behavioural issues shift to the online world. In the days before computers and social media, students would be much more vocal, and overhearing them was a way that teachers could intervene. Nowadays, students use silent communication, such as texts and computers and monitoring empowers teachers to safeguard effectively, often stepping in before online activity enters a dangerous or criminal space.

As the final bell rings at the end of the day, a school must deliver its some 2,000 students back to their parents as happy, safe and protected as they were when they left home that morning and they will use all the tools available to them in order to achieve this.

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