Students at home during lockdown

Students in lockdown face a real and present danger from online predators

Smoothwall’s VP and General Manager Brian Muenster explains the exponential dangers to students studying at home and why $2 trillion stimulus package announced by Congress couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

As schools across the States shut down to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, the topic on many Tech Director’s lips is the better technology and support needed to make sure students can distance learn while at home.

Crucial as that is, there is another task at hand; the need to protect the millions of children now using the internet unfiltered and without supervision.

Covid-19 lockdowns have created a hole in the wall that, alarmingly, has not gone unnoticed by online predators. Europol, the European Police Agency, believe child abusers are taking full advantage and ”welcoming opportunities to engage with children” in online forums and boards.

In the UK, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has warned that at least 300,000 people pose a sexual threat to children as pedophiles look to exploit the coronavirus lockdown. Investigators say they have identified offenders discussing opportunities to abuse children during the crisis in chats online. And police are warning of a spike in abuse with schools closed and youngsters spending more time on the internet. And that’s just in the UK. It’s hard to imagine the scale across the US.

Digital safety is now one of the highest priorities facing Districts Techs in these lockdown times. In a normal school day, children’s online activity is protected by the use of web filters. Web filters block the harmful content a child can access and are a requirement for US school districts under The Children’s Internet Protection Act, (CIPA).

A growing number of school districts also use digital threat detection. Threat detection technology, working alongside human moderators, alerts school and/or District Leaders to children at risk of harm as suggested by their online activities. This includes their search behaviors, their use of apps or thoughts or intentions communicated in Word or other offline documents. It makes invisible dangers visible and enables school leaders to get help to a student at risk, quickly. In 2019 Smoothwall’s human moderators identified a serious risk to a child’s health or life every 3 minutes; that’s 5009 students at serious risk who may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Challenges arise when children use their personal laptops or tablets at home. Schools across the world find it exceedingly difficult to impose filtering, threat detection and other security protocols onto devices they don’t own and have no access to. It’s an exponential problem the UK, in particular, is facing right now. Not so much, however, in the US.

US education policy over the last decade has seen nearly every child equipped with a personal device. These ‘one device to one student’ programs (otherwise known as 1:1 programs) are intended to give access to digital resources and improve learning regardless of a student’s background. This supports disadvantaged children, particularly who would otherwise lack the necessary IT resources to access online learning. Critically, they also bring the added benefit of enabling school districts to install web filtering and monitoring and therefore roll out a more widespread protective shield against online predators – regardless of where the child is located.

The U.K. has not adopted 1:1 in the same way, preferring instead a less consistent policy of “bring your own device” (BYOD), which encourages or requires students to use their own laptops, smartphones or tablets for offsite learning – if they can. These devices are not school owned and therefore contain no digital safeguarding capability beyond what a more tech-savvy parent may apply.

All eyes are now on the US model and its ability to keep students safe. Inherent within this model, of course, is the deployment of digital safety software onto these 1:1 devices. We know that school districts and schools themselves have a list of priorities right now, not least of which is ensuring continuity of learning. But digital safety should be close to the top of that list, given the growth in online harm.

At Smoothwall we welcome the $2 trillion stimulus package announced by Congress in March on the basis that it includes $13.5 billion for school online learning support. While we as an organization, don’t benefit from this directly, we do ensure the safety of the market that these funds target. We urge school districts to take advantage of this funding if they can, and shore up their digital safety. Alongside that we’re also making our Smoothwall Cloud Filter, Safeguard Record Manager, Classroom Manager solutions free of charge to those Districts who need it, while ever schools are closed.

We’re working hand in hand with District Leaders across the US to keep students safe in their own homes. And for those Districts yet to take action, please contact us. We can help you, quickly and easily. Our digital safety experts are at your disposal and for no charge. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the safety and even lives of our children could depend on it.

For an informal discussion please contact me directly.

Brian Muenster
VP Sales, General Manager
Smoothwall Inc.

C – 443.604.9626

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