DENVER (KDVR) – A tech company that schools use to digitally analyze what students in Colorado are talking about online found a drastic amount of references to suicide, self-harm and violence during the pandemic.
The company, which uses machine-learning technology to analyze what students type, post and send using school-issued devices and accounts, found Colorado school districts that use the service had a 159% increase in references to suicide and self-harm and an uptick in references to violence by 120% between 2019 and 2020.
“There’s no question our country is in the midst of a mental health crisis that has been worsened by the pandemic,” said Jeff Patterson, the CEO of the student safety company, Gaggle.
“Gaggle’s data shows a massive jump in threats of self-harm and violence among K-12 students, underscoring the fact that young people are struggling, and adults need to be paying close attention in order to provide much-needed support and resources to help keep our children safe,” he said.
Where Gaggle is used
The Gaggle service is utilized by 33 schools or districts in the state of Colorado, according to the company, including Denver Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools, Weld County School District RE-1, and Widefield School District 3 in Colorado Springs.
Gaggle would not reveal the names of all the districts that use the service.
The service “uses a combination of technology and human intelligence to help school districts identify the early warning signs that students present, so they can take proactive action to protect their students from harming themselves or others,” said Alex Sollberger, a spokesperson for the company.
Gaggle scans a student’s school-issued device and other platforms and alerts the school security and mental health experts if it red-flags concerning language or images. Schools and districts say the students and their parents are made aware of the service when school devices are issued to children.
“Any time that we see a picture of a student with a weapon…the first response would be to go out to the home or the school – wherever the student is – and confirm whether or not they have accessibility to a weapon. Confirm whether it’s a real weapon,” said Melissa Craven, the deputy chief of student support services for Denver Public Schools.
“There’s a lot of bad language and a lot of questionable photography captured with the Gaggle filters,” she said. “We send those directly to the teacher, the school principal, those types of things, and so, those do not require a response from our team. It’s just the life-threatening ones.”
According to Gaggle, Colorado schools that use the service saw an increase in nudity and sexual content by 85% after the pandemic started. References to drugs and alcohol also went up by 87%.
Denver Public Schools
Craven said DPS saw a decrease in the number of red-flagged self-harm and harm-to-others references in their schools even though Gaggle was scanning nearly double the number of documents – close to 23 million – during the pandemic.
“I do feel like maybe we are intervening sooner, and there are more supports in place now,” she said.
Craven said references to self-harm and harm to others fell by about 120 incidents when comparing data from the year of the pandemic to data from the school year that preceded the pandemic.
In the Weld County School District RE-1, foster parent and school district employee Wes Pike said Gaggle helped him learn about a few issues with his children.
“I got notified that one of our kids had some threatening emails that he had been dealing with, and they kind of told us that the information that was being handed along in that email was of a violent nature of possibly hurting someone else, and the school district let us know about it so we could take care of it,” said Pike.
Pike said the notification helped him figure out what was going on with this child.
It was helpful, he said, “to be able to sit down and talk to him to be able to figure out what was going on – even if it was just joking around – to try to make sure he understood that it wasn’t something that was OK to be doing.”
Pike said he received a separate notice about a different child who tried to access pornography online as well.
“I feel like that should have been curtailed before he even got the chance to see the pictures,” said Pike. “But it was nice to actually have a notification.”
Aurora Public Schools
Aurora Public School leaders declined to speak about their use of Gaggle with the Problem Solvers, but FOX31 filed an open records request for public information related to the district’s use of the service.
Those records showed the district’s 2020-2021 contract for the services was $243,810.
All students with an aurorak12 domain name, which includes about 38,000 kids, were affected.
Their records from Gmail, Google Drive, Google Hangouts, Google Calendar, Google Chat and Linewize were subjected to Gaggle analysis.
That included more than 59 million items.
The district started using the service in November 2019.