Student Surveillance Software: Schools know what your child is doing online. Do you?

Original Reporting

(WSPA) – Violence, suicide, child pornography; you might think these are all very “adult” issues, but schools are catching a growing number of red flags for questionable content on students’ computers.

It’s all thanks to sophisticated software that filters what your kids write, post and share.

7News looked into the numbers, and you might be surprised to learn how much inappropriate and concerning content districts and law enforcement are finding, in this special report: Student Surveillance Software.

You lock your door, your car, but trouble may be one click away, if you don’t know what your kids are up to online.

Greenville mother of seven, Kerra McAdams, has five teenagers under one roof.

She admits, with the web in their pockets, the learning curve as a parent is steep.

“One of my friends and I were talking about that, you know, did you know that if your son receives a text message and forwards it it can be considered distributing pornography,” said McAdams.

And now, getting caught for inapprorpiate online behavior is easier than ever thanks to a growing number of districts using advanced software that flags questionable content on school issued computers.

In January the Greenville School District started using a program called Gaggle which filters everything from curse words to references to drugs, bullying, violence and pornography.

In just the last four months, the district has received more than 20,000 notifications. 6,477 are for potential bullying and drug use. About 500 are of an even more serious nature, threats of violence, self harm, and child pornography.

When it comes to sexual images, Rick Floyd, the district’s Information Security Expert, says, believe it or not, most of it comes from students sharing nude selfies.

“They don’t think about that this is actually against the law, creating child pornography, the person who makes it, the person who takes the picture. And when they send it to somebody they’re distributing child pornography. And the person who recieves it is in posession of child pornography,” said Floyd.

Kevin Atkins with the Attorney General’s office, oversees the child pornography cases in South Carolina. In addition to filters like Gaggle, he says social media and other online platforms have their own software that filters child pornography, so he sees cases, not just from school computers, but personal devices.

He says during the pandemic, the number of child pornography reports from these online filters jumped from about 2,800 in 2019 to roughly 4,000 in 2020, many of them “self produced” by kids.

And beyond possible school suspension, he says the consequences can last a lifetime.

“We had a case where a child was identified, lots of pictures of her, we’ve prosecuted, people have gone to prison, but we still can get reports of how many times those images have been distributed around the world. It’s a mindboggling amount,” said Atkins.

Anderson District 5 was one of the first in the Upstate to start using Gaggle.

With one-fifth the student population of Greenville, it has fielded more than 5,300 reports since 2013. Nearly 190 of them for child pornography.

Dr. Cory Williams says students who send nude selfies or share them are often surprised to find out, it’s against the law.

Williams is also quick to point out how the program has helped save lives with more than 1,700 alerts of references to violence towards others and 1500 red flags of self harm, like one that happened over Christmas break.

“The parent had no idea that this student was basically writing a suicide letter. And as a result several calls were made and couldn’t get in touch with the parents so again law enforcement had to go out. The student was actually placed in an acute care program,” said Williams, who added the student is now doing well.

Dr. Jimmy Pryor with Spartanburg District One has similar stories, with a different filtering program called Securly. It’s roll out in January also keeps parents in the loop.

“Schools get the same notification as parents, it’s completely transparent, they are seeing the exact same reports, so it opens up those conversations when a principal or guidance counselor calls home to say, did you see what I just saw or did you see this report,” said Pryor.

McAdams, says she is both surprised and relieved by the level of tracking on school computers.

She says knowing how much is flagged on school devices, she’s more motivated than ever to keep a closer eye on those personal devices.

“It’s just a given, like anytime mom or dad wants to look at your phone you just hand it over,” she said.

For parents interested in buying filters for personal devices at home, here are some options to explore:

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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