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Software helping protect students

By TRAVIS WEIK - tweik@thecouriertimes.com

Keeping kids safe is about more than making a better building. Sometimes, it’s about listening and paying attention to warning signs.

New Castle schools are using technology and in-person counseling to help find students who might be in danger of hurting themselves or someone else.

New Castle Superintendent Dr. Matt Shoemaker recently updated his school board about the district’s cyber monitoring program and partnership with a local mental health provider.

For the past year, the New Castle technology department has used the cyber-monitoring tool Bark for all elementary student accounts and Gaggle for all middle and high school accounts.

According to the company’s website, Bark for Schools was developed as a response to the tragic Parkland shooting, as a way to help schools protect students at no cost to them or their communities.

Bark for Schools monitor Gmail and Google Classroom accounts “for signs of cyberbullying, suicidal ideation, sexual predators, school shootings, and more.”

Shoemaker explained the Bark system sends an alert to the tech department if a New Castle student is threatening to harm themself or harm somebody else.

“They’ll key in on code words of cyberbullying and forward them to us so we can address it,” Shoemaker said.

Starting next school year, the school devices of all New Castle students will be monitored by Gaggle K-12.

“It’s a little bit more sensitive and it has a human filtering component,” Shoemaker said.

Technology Director Dustin Chew said Gaggle has been credited with saving a few hundred lives across the country.

“A lot of schools use it just for this. It’s about our children’s safety,” Chew said.

Shoemaker told the New Castle school board the monitoring services seem to be working, even if parents don’t realize the safety net is there.

He acknowledged some people might consider the cyber-monitoring to George Orwell’s “Big Brother.”

“It’s ‘Big Brother’ to protect our kids,” Shoemaker said.  “I’ve gotten a call at 9 or 10 at night on a Friday (saying) ‘Hey, we’ve got a kid that’s threatening suicide.’”

Along with new technology, the city’s schools are bringing more people into buildings to help students in crisis.

“We’re committed to our counselors,” Shoemaker said.

New Castle Community School Corporation recently partnered with mental health provider Centerstone.

“Next year, we’ll have a social worker in every school, which is phenomenal,” Shoemaker said.

He thanked NCCSC Director of Curriculum Sherri Bergum for her work over the past two years to make sure New Castle schools are addressing mental health issues by promoting the role of school counselors and on-site social workers.

Bergum has said in the past that New Castle teachers go above and beyond to help their students, but the counselors are especially trained to help students with the mental health and traumatic life issues they bring to school today.

“A lot of safety comes from the social-emotional health of these children,” Bergum said.

New Castle Community School Corporation also plans to implement the Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Newsela curriculum for kindergarten through sixth grade students.

According to Newsela, an education technology company, this curriculum is designed to support academic achievement by promoting responsible decision-making, building and maintaining personal relationships, effective communication, managing stress and setting goals.

“Research points out that acquiring these skills does not detract from academic performance,” Newsela said. “It enhances it, creating classroom success today and career success tomorrow.”

New Castle administrators are also working to bring more suicide-prevention training to staff members.

Some non-certified NCCSC employees already took initiative by completing suicide-prevention training during eLearning days earlier this year.

Indiana law requires every public school corporation to have one staff member trained as a safety specialist.

“We actually have eight,” Shoemaker told his board. “And we plan to have more trained.”

Visit www.nccsc.k12.in.us/new-castle-school-corporation-safety-security-initiatives-april-2019 to see a full report of the steps NCCSC has taken and plans to take in order to keep New Castle students safe.