Parents seek restriction of Google Chat

T-R PHOTO BY LANA BRADSTREAM The Marshalltown Community School District is monitoring activity on school-issued Chromebooks, whether at home or in the buildings. Some parents have sought restriction of certain programs, such as Google Chat.

Near the beginning of the spring semester, parents of a Miller Middle School seventh grader were notified their daughter was taken to the office for her bag to be searched for a firearm.

The student messaged a friend through Google Chat — a communication feature on the school-issued Chromebooks — to say she had a gun. Directly after the weapon was mentioned, the student said it was fake and she was joking. A real or fake gun was not found.

The situation prompted stepmother Brittany and father Wesley Hala to monitor their daughter’s Google Chat use. They found she had been sending and receiving messages from other students throughout the entire school day. Messages would begin at 8 a.m. and were exchanged consistently with multiple students.

Conversations between friends were unrelated to school work, and some messages she received contained bullying and harassment from other students. Self-harm and suicide were also referenced in the conversations.

Brittany and Wesley Hala attempted to restrict their daughter’s Google Chat use by submitting a ticket to the school’s technology department. Director of Technology Amy Harmsen replied to the ticket after consulting Miller Middle School principals and counselors, stating the technology department has the ability to restrict Google Chat use, but it is purposely enabled to allow for monitoring of student messages.

“Kids are smart,” Harmsen said in the email response to Brittany and Wesley Hala’s submitted ticket. “As soon as they know we are closely monitoring them or they no longer have one avenue, they find another.”

In the 2020-21 school year, the technology department has received 22 tickets requesting for devices to be categorized as “highly-restricted.” While the district can receive tickets requesting technology to be restricted, the decision to limit access comes from school administration.

Harmsen said it is crucial to keep technology in student’s hands whenever possible and appropriate.

“Marshalltown Community School District has a goal to help students become educated in the area of computer science as creators and innovators, not simply tech-savvy consumers,” Harmsen said

If a student is seen in class repeatedly using technology for inappropriate means, the student may be moved closer to the teacher to ensure the device’s screen is visible. The device may be set on the teacher’s desk until it is time for use, and random checks of the history may be made.

“As a last resort, temporary loss of the device, parent contact and potentially a behavior referral, which can lead to the device being listed as highly-restricted, may result from continued inappropriate technology use,” Harmsen said.

After continuing to request their daughter’s Google Chat use be restricted, Brittany and Wesley Hala received a response from Miller Middle School Co-Principal Kristyn Kell. The biological mother of the student disagreed with these requests, and the school decided to support her decision.

“We feel her use is not an egregious violation of the district’s responsible use agreement,” Kell said in email to Brittany and Wesley Hala. “We have consulted with our legal counsel as well as our superintendent in regards to your requests. We have determined it is [her] best interest emotionally and educationally to keep Google Chat and her device, especially because we are able to monitor Google Chat and not other message boards.”

Kell was asked by Marshalltown Board of Education member Mike Miller at the April 19 school board meeting if the district was monitoring students internet and Chromebook activities. He also inquired if the students were aware of the monitoring.

“Yes, they know,” Kell said. “We can see emails. If you were to say a profanity in an email, it gets flagged. Anything that is suicidal goes to a mass email to administrators and counselors.”

Kell mentioned the school has a system to see exactly what students are searching on the internet, and what they are searching when they’re off the school’s Wi-Fi network at home.

“Do some things get through? Absolutely. But for the most part if they’re using anything on the school system we’re going to see it and be able to intervene,” Kell said.

The program GoGuardian filters out websites deemed inappropriate or harmful, and another

program called Bark monitors messaging on each Chromebook. Both operate wherever a student’s device is used.

The categories Bark scans for include expressions of self-harm or suicidal thoughts, mentions of illicit drugs, nudity or explicit content, bullying and communication with online predators.

If any of these categories are detected, Bark notifies staff through a dashboard where they can see alerts. Once Bark has notified the appropriate school staff member, they follow up with the student and/or the student’s family.

Google Chat has been enabled and disabled throughout the district’s use of Chromebooks, Harmsen said. Most recently, it was enabled in March 2020 for communication between students, families and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are so many ways for students to communicate digitally, and the Marshalltown Community School District found a benefit in providing a way for students to communicate and collaborate on school-related tasks using a platform that we could monitor,” Harmsen said.” “Therefore, Google Chat is enabled for students.”

In March, the Miller Middle School student said her Google Chat access was limited to band use. In April, the student claimed school staff was placing more focus on keeping students off Google Chat for non-school purposes during class.

No official changes to a Google Chat policy hasvebeen made by the school district this semester.

Contact Trevor Babcock at 641-753-6611 or tbabcock@timesrepublican.com.


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