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Berkeley students write suicide threats, sext, and bully each other in Google Docs

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Google Chromebooks (copy)

The Google data center has provided Chromebooks to students in Berkeley County School District. Cyberbullying, suicide threats and sexting sometimes happen on the devices and applications, school officials say. Documents are monitored for bullying, threats or lewd images so employees can be notified.  Google/Provided

During Thanksgiving break, a student at a Berkeley County school opened a Google document on her school-provided Chromebook laptop and began listing suicidal thoughts. She wanted to take her life, she said in her online diary. 

In short order, local law enforcement went to the girl's house for a welfare check. Her parents were notified and she had a subsequent meeting with a guidance counselor when she returned to school.

It was the third suicide threat written on a Chromebook by a student during that school break. 

In this new era of technology, the Berkeley school district lives with third-party monitoring software programmed to flag keywords and notify employees of potentially dangerous situations ahead of parents and law enforcement. 

Nearly 40,000 Berkeley County students have access to Chromebooks, a Google laptop which uses the Chrome internet browser as its operating system. It allows students to use apps such as Google Docs to edit, write and share homework and assignments with classmates in real-time. It is a useful resource for one of South Carolina's largest school districts. Every first- through 12th-grader at Berkeley County schools has a Chromebook as a result of numerous donations from Google.

The tech giant has a massive data center in the area and often gives back through philanthropic partnerships. While the charity was appreciated, the district didn't know what it was getting into: The access to technology has opened up a vault of unintended consequences.

Cyberbullying, suicide threats and sexting happens on the devices and applications, school officials say. 

“We’ve put so many Chromebooks in our kids' hands,” said Tim Knight, school safety officer for the district. “We’ve got thousands of them, which is great. But we have to look at the bad side of that and we’ve had to put a whole lot of procedures in place.”

A Google Doc can act like a live chatroom, with messages and photos being deleted and added in real time. Most of the flagged cases happen outside of school hours, according to Diane Driggers, the chief information technology officer for the district.

Driggers is tasked with monitoring third-party software which scans through the Google Docs and flags keywords that could indicate bullying, threats or lewd images or memes.

These keywords include apparent phrases such as "kill," "knife," or "school shootings" but also some more subtle code words such as "kms" which stands for "kill myself," Driggers and Knight said.

The district office can be flagged with anywhere from 15 to 17 alerts a day.

Many are false alarms, but others are more suspect. 

"It's par for the course with the change in technology," Driggers said. "We'll get alerts and calls at 2 or 3 in the morning on the weekends and holidays. It's something different than we've had before." 

A new era of bullying

Because some of the circumstances involved minors, Berkeley County School District didn't discuss too many specifics. Knight said items reported in Google Docs have led to suspensions and other disciplinary actions. He said there have been instances of sexting and threats of violence. In some cases, law enforcement got involved. 

School board member David Barrow said he was disappointed to see that cyberbullying was happening on school devices and felt bad for the district having to manage the influx of alerts. 

"It's unfortunate, but not at all surprising in this era of social media," Barrow said. "It's becoming more of an issue for the administrators." 

It also mirrors a national trend.

Officials at Bark, one of many third-party monitoring software companies that exist to prevent cyberbullying and abuse on school devices, said they've seen upward of 60,000 cases of kids ganging up on other children in Google Docs across the nation.

Titania Jordan, the chief parent officer of the company, said Google products create a unique environment for bullying. 

"Children are collaborating on Google Docs for schoolwork and projects," Jordan said. "But because it's a living, breathing document, there is the nuance that a bunch of comments can be there one minute and then deleted the next. You can upload photos, you can make comments and you can exclude access to certain people."

She described a trend in which students use a shared Google document as a private, digital "burn book" — a reference to the diary that included cruel and harmful rumors in the 2004 movie "Mean Girls."

Students at Berkeley County can bring their Chromebooks home with them. Whether they are on school grounds or not, all content is monitored through the school's network and is flagged by the third-party software. If a student violates school policy frequently with the laptop, his or her access can be cut off or the Chromebook can ultimately be taken away, Driggers said. 

Berkeley County uses Gaggle, an Illinois-based company that monitors school systems. In 2018 and 2019, Gaggle recorded more than 52,000 references across the country to suicide or self-harm in students’ online activity. 

Knight said serious cases are either forwarded to law enforcement or school principals to determine punishment or guidance. The district also hosts semi-regular internet workshops for parents to educate them on cyberbullying. 

Staying vigilant

The degree to which students have access to individual school-issued technology varies greatly across surrounding districts in the tri-county area.

Some students, like those in Dorchester School District 2, do not have individual access to school-owned iPads or Chromebooks. Instead, they mostly use computers in the media center or designated computer labs.

Since the district primarily uses Microsoft products, students generally don't utilize Google Docs. 

"We definitely have those devices in our schools for classroom support, but certainly not for every student," spokeswoman Pat Raynor said. 

The district will begin to distribute iPads to third- through 12th-graders in August.

Others, like students in Dorchester District 4, have access to Chromebooks but are not allowed to take the devices home. Instead, each teacher is issued a classroom set for students to use.

Neither district reported any incidents of cyberbullying or student misconduct via Google docs. 

Charleston County School District officials were also unaware of this type of behavior occurring on school-owned technology.

Students do have access via Chromebooks and tablets, district spokesman Andy Pruitt said, but the district hasn’t received any discipline reports detailing Google Docs harassment or bullying. Charleston County School District also has the capability to monitor students’ school-issued Gmail accounts. 

“To be clear, we aren’t saying this hasn’t happened, but it hasn’t risen to the level where the reports from the school level are confirming this is a major issue,” Pruitt said. “We just don’t have proof that this is a widespread concern in CCSD.”

The school district’s IT department confirmed that some students do use Google Docs as a messaging platform, although some of that communication is used for collaborating on group projects, Pruitt said.

As electronic devices continue to become more and more prevalent in schools across the country, all tri-county districts have implemented safeguards to better ensure students are using their technology appropriately. They all use software that allows teachers or computer lab instructors to monitor students’ technology use.

"We're talking about teenagers. A lot of times they make decisions and do things where they are not thinking about the consequences," Knight said. "They know we're monitoring, but unfortunately they may make a bad decision and post something. We try to stay proactive."

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

Jenna Schiferl was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has worked as an education reporter for The Post and Courier since 2019.

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