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Threats to student safety in online classrooms cause alarm to parents

Following the winter break and as part of school board responses to the pandemic, schools have returned to online learning since Wednesday, Jan. 5 and will continue to do so until Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. This time around, the Limestone District School Board (LDSB) decided to move away from Google Classroom, mandating that all online classrooms move to Microsoft Teams only, for security purposes. Despite that change, reports that students are experiencing harassment and being sent inappropriate content from external users are arising from concerned parents.

A young student logs onto his first online Kindergarten class session in 2021. Photo by Thomas Park.

‘In tears and not comfortable attending online class’

In an online interview, one concerned local parent shared their story. The parent will remain anonymous in order to protect the privacy of the student.

“My child was sent explicit private chat messages from students in their online classroom, including multiple links to [adult websites]. Apparently the links originated from a student who attends a different school than my child,” the parent said. Because they were able to monitor their child’s activity through mobile notifications, the parent was able to monitor the activity happening within their child’s private Teams chat, they explained. “While I was working, my devices were receiving a message every five seconds. It was constant.” The parent then pulled their child from attending class that day.

The issue remained unresolved the following day, even after both the teacher and vice-principal were contacted on the matter, according to the parent. Inappropriate content continued to be sent to the, now in tears, young student. Once again, they logged off for the day for their own safety and well-being.

These incidents have now been directly communicated to the teacher and school admin, as well as the parents of the other student involved, and subsequently addressed. However, the issue of external students entering private Teams chats still remains unresolved, the parent communicated.

“I’m not sure what Monday will hold, but I’m hopeful that the school will protect [my child] while I’m not there,” they relayed.

Students are encouraged to be good ‘digital citizens’

Associate Superintendent of Caring Schools for LDSB, Patty Gollogly, spoke about the matter in a phone interview on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. “We try to be proactive about teaching our students digital citizenship. We ensure that [teachers] review and go over what this means. We also make sure that our students have an understanding of the appropriate use of technology,” Gollogly said, regarding what measures are being taken to ensure student safety online.

Gollogly would not directly address the matter of students being able to invite other, unauthorized people into Teams chats, nor the sending of inappropriate materials between students, as they related to a specific incident, she said.

Surrounding the issue of cyber security, Gollogly pointed to the idea of “digital citizenship” multiple times. LDSB defines digital citizenship as “the norms of responsible behaviour related to the appropriate use of technology.” Furthermore, the LDSB states that it “is committed to providing and maintaining safe and appropriate environments conducive to learning and working for all. To improve student success and achievement, we must ensure that students feel safe, welcomed, respected and included.“

The Administrative Procedure 146 Digital Citizenship document outlines the prohibited uses of technology as including but not limited to: “creating, displaying, storing or sending fraudulent, harassing, sexually explicit, profane, obscene, intimidating, defamatory or otherwise inappropriate or unlawful materials; Cyberbullying.” Consequences for these aforementioned prohibited uses of technology are, “dealt with in accordance to the school’s Code of Conduct and/or relevant Board administrative procedures. This could result in the loss of network access privileges, temporary confiscation of devices, and/or other disciplinary actions.”

How can parents help students stay safe?

Gollogy acknowledged that this is a “challenging time for everyone” and that parents, students, and teachers are all doing their very best. Parents and guardians are encouraged to promote open conversations with students about what’s happening in their online classrooms, both the good and the bad. The LDSB suggests parents/guardians encourage students to speak out to their teachers if they notice any inappropriate or bullying behaviours.

If issues do arise, there is a reporting tool available on the LDSB website, as well as an outline of the recommended chain of contacts for initiating a resolution process.

With schools being scheduled to reopen this Monday, there still lies an uncertainty: Will the bullying that started online continue in school?

To that end, Gollogy said that the LDSB,“will continue to explore options on how to make sure that our students are feeling safe and comfortable within their classrooms.” Parents are encouraged to remain vigilant and proactive in holding space for conversations with students as they adjust to the ever-evolving school climate.

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