Software helps Georgia district improve students' online safety— and boost IT support


As more of America’s K-12 students spend their days learning online, keeping them safe and focused on their studies has become a monumental task.

Richmond County School District in Augusta, Georgia, typifies the challenge schools face — and how technology is helping to address them.

With 57 schools and about 3,000 students, the district had fewer than 10 specialists supporting more than 19,000 devices. Providing network support, responding to service requests and simultaneously keeping track of student online activity was proving to be a herculean job.

That led the district to look for a more comprehensive software system to replace multiple stand-alone products, according to James Lunsford, the system’s IT director.

Richmond turned to Impero’s Education Pro, which not only helped consolidate and manage the network district-wide, but offered unique safety features including a fluid keyword library, screenshot and video capture capabilities and a real-time alert system tailored to flag concerning incidents and notify the appropriate staff member or administrator.

“The growth of digital learning happened so quickly, schools haven’t been able to catch up to that environment,” says Nikki Annison, chief marketing officer at Impero. “Risks are growing everyday,” she adds.

Impero worked with partner organizations with expertise in variety of areas, according to Annison, including subjects such as eating disorders, suicide, sexual assault and terrorism grooming. It then developed a library of relevant keywords and phrases that might be detected in email, websites or browser search bars.

When the system detects something of concern, such as the phrase, “how to commit suicide,” a screen shot with the time logged will be sent to a counselor, teacher or principal, depending upon how the district sets up the program. Administrators can assess the incident, determine whether there’s cause for concern, a pattern of behavior or if a student is at risk of self-harm or harming another person, and then address the issue with that student and parents.

“Our software is just a way to get to the conversations that happen after something has been detected,” says Annison.

Students in Richmond County and other districts using Education Pro know about the software; that fact alone acts as a deterrent, says Annison. Company officials advise schools that use monitoring systems like Impero to have an Acceptable Use Policy in place that outlines what user behavior is acceptable and explains the type of monitoring that is present on the school’s network, in line with any applicable local privacy laws.

In addition, there is an anonymous reporting tool that enables students to report concerns about themselves, friends, even teachers, to a trusted adult.

The schools using monitoring systems like Impero should have an Acceptable Use Policy in place that outlines what user behavior is acceptable and explains the type of monitoring that is present on the school’s network, in line with any applicable local privacy laws.

The Education Pro library is updated every few months to reflect relevant terms and slang that students’ use in their daily conversations. Impero tests words to ensure that false notifications are kept to a minimum, says Annison.

The Impero software has been invaluable as Richmond County moves towards a one-to-one device model, says Lunsford. His technology team can now provide support across the network remotely, without having to jump into a van and drive across the district, he says. It also allows his team to deploy new applications and instructional software packages and offer better maintenance.

“The application can touch thousands of machines,” and has contributed to a significant reduction in support calls, says Lunsford. “Teachers can pick it up easily and love the real-time monitoring, keyword detection and ability to broadcast screens,” he says.

The IT team has deployed the Education Pro software on all the high school and middle school teachers’ laptops and will do the same at the elementary level, says Lunsford. And he adds, they’re exploring how to manage mobile devices, piloting wireless access on buses and providing support remotely after hours, he adds.

The software has also had another positive affect: The district has seen a reduction in disciplinary incidents around online behavior, says Lunsford. A goal is to impact elementary students before they’ve developed online habits, he adds.

“We want to train them at an earlier age when they are building skills,” he says.