The West Valley School District has signed up for a new service called Bark that automatically scans student emails and documents for keywords related to weapons, violence and bullying.
“Each student in the district has a Google account, and we manage it,” said district IT director Rod Neumann. “As soon as they enroll we set it up. It’s free, unlimited storage.”
Each year students have to sign a computer-use agreement that says they will abide by the district’s rules against bullying, harassment and other behavior when using their school Google account. “Being in the schools, they know their internet is filtered,” Neumann said. “They know people can see their files.”
Local school district IT directors meet once a month to talk about new technologies and other topics, and that’s where Neumann heard about the Bark program, which is offered to school districts for free. It looks for keywords in several different categories, including weapons, depression, self-harm, suicide, profanity, sexual content, cyberbullying, violence and drug and alcohol use.
If a questionable document or email is found, a report is generated for Neumann to review. He can forward it to the appropriate counselors and principals if action is needed. “I can see the document and why it was flagged,” he said.
As IT director, Neumann always had the ability to read student files and emails but there are simply too many for him to review, so he decided to give Bark a try and activated it last week.
“I turned it on, and it flagged a bunch of stuff right off the bat,” he said. “What it looks for is suspicious activity in their emails and files.”
One of the reports generated the first day was marked as critical, and Neumann opened it.
“It was a document a girl was drafting that was essentially a suicide note,” he said.
He immediately contacted the student’s principal and counselor. “We had two different people contact the family within an hour,” he said.
Neumann said he’s noticed that most of what is being flagged are documents and not emails. Students often create a Google document and then they and other students take turns adding comments to the document. “They’re just having conversations in Google documents,” he said.
Parents also have the option to sign up to receive any report generated because of something their son or daughter has written that is flagged by Bark. Neumann said he planned to try out the system for 60 days before sending out information to parents about the new system and how to sign up, but a generic automated email was sent out by Bark, catching parents off guard.
“Apparently it just sent them out to everyone,” Neumann said. “We’ll be sending more communication home.”
Neumann received several calls from confused parents asking about the Bark email they received, wanting to know what Bark is and what it does. Neumann said that once he has explained it, they are generally enthusiastic. “I’ve gotten some good feedback,” he said.
Neumann said he wanted to add the program to be proactive and for his own peace of mind. He said he doesn’t want to find out after something bad happens that the information needed to stop it was on the school district’s network and he didn’t know about it.
He said if all Bark ever finds is the student’s suicide note, he’s fine with that. “It was worth it, to me,” he said.
School district spokeswoman Sue Shields said the Bark system could also help stop a school shooting or other act of violence.
“Safety is our No. 1 priority in West Valley, so anything we can do to keep our students safe and our staff,” she said. “It’s a great system.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.