Today, students are not merely digital natives; they are voracious consumers and creators of digital content both in school and out. This increased access has also increased the risk that students will engage in riskier behaviors online or be exposed to content that’s inappropriate, or even dangerous. How to interact online in an appropriate way, and how to navigate difficult issues such as sexting and cyberbullying, often aren’t addressed in school curriculum, despite the huge impact they can have on students both emotionally and academically if things go wrong.
At the San Juan School District in Utah, we took some concrete steps in an effort to get out in front of the issue. As the district’s HR director and Title IX coordinator, I was hearing more concerns and seeing some worrying trends relating to cyberbullying, hazing, and sexual harassment, including some serious allegations involving students that occurred off of school grounds.
As a leadership team, we recognized the need to be proactive in order to ensure incidents like this would not happen in the future, and to accomplish this we needed tools to help us facilitate better communication among both students and staff about sensitive student safety and wellness topics.
To help tackle this issue, the district implemented a series of Student Safety and Wellness courses from Vector Solutions at our high schools. The courses provide online video lessons for students that describe important safety topics and facilitate discussions about those topics.
The lessons were implemented in group sessions at the high schools during the district’s “HOPE Week”–a week dedicated to addressing safety issues such as suicide prevention, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, and digital citizenship.
In group settings, students completed a course each day. This involved watching a video lesson about the topic, completing an assessment, and participating in group discussions based on the lesson’s discussion prompts. For example, the Digital Citizenship course included prompts such as “How might the ways we interact online hurt our real relationships with others? What can we do to avoid these problems?” and “How big of a problem is cyberbullying? What cyberbullying really looks like.”
The goal was to use these lessons as catalysts to get students and teachers talking. The impact was immediate and extremely positive. For the first time, staff members said students were talking in a productive, responsible way about sensitive topics such as sexting and other online safety issues. Even as a parent, my son, who watched the videos in school, started open conversations with me about those topics without me soliciting information. In my mind, if kids are going home to their parents and talking about these topics, that in-and-of-itself makes it a success.
Addressing appropriate technology usage
Why wait until you have to address an issue to get started teaching your students, and teachers, the different aspects of digital citizenship? Understanding what issues your school might face and then how to prevent those issues from happening is a proactive way to approach digital citizenship.
Below are some things to consider when creating a digital citizenship program in your school.
- Be a community team member: Even if something doesn’t happen on school grounds, it’s still something the school and/or the district should address. A school is part of the larger community so it’s important for school leadership to do their part to keep that community strong and safe. Plus, things that happen outside of school trickle down into the classroom. If bullying is happening outside of school or online, chances are it will manifest in school, too. Students might start fights or withdraw from their academics, so looking out for the wellbeing of students requires being proactive.
- Provide training: Not all teachers know how to present and facilitate discussions about sensitive topics. Kids will be kids and if you let them, they may laugh and joke and make snide comments when discussing things like sexting or bullying. Before rolling out the courses, our teachers were coached on how to facilitate conversations around the topics being presented and on setting expectations for the discussions. This helped to ensure students were in the right mindset to receive the information and discuss it in a positive, productive manner. Also, make sure teachers are prepared with resources and provide a mechanism for teachers to share concerns with the appropriate person or persons immediately.
- Get buy-in from staff, school boards, and parents: The San Juan School District is part of a coalition of stakeholders who all banded together to advocate for resources to address some of the challenges happening in our community. Before implementing the video lessons, we discussed them at school board meetings, sent a letter home to parents, and invited parents and board members to view them. Parents were encouraged to continue these important conversations at home with their students. This outreach helped get buy-in and avoided any misunderstandings about the initiative.
- Make sure content is engaging and relevant: Vector Solutions’ videos feature young people and scenarios that are relatable. For instance, one of the digital citizenship videos describes a fictional scenario of a couple, “Eric” and “Josie.” In the scenario, Eric pressures Josie to send him nude photos of her. When they break up, he is angry and shares the photos with his friends. Her parents find out and call the police who arrest Eric because, since Josie is under the age of 16, the images are considered child pornography. In the lesson, a boy and girl who appear to be in high school, then talk about the scenario and how students can protect themselves and those they care about. These features make the videos relatable and will help the information stick.
For our district, the videos were incredibly effective. You have kids younger and younger engaging in these activities so we need to always ask ourselves “how are we teaching them to be safe?” Having videos as part of our digital citizenship program – and having those conversations about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed – has been huge.