PORTLAND, Oregon — Anna Gross has a 3rd and 5th grader at Irvington Elementary School in Portland. She was surprised to learn the Chromebooks issued by Portland Public Schools didn’t come with parental control software.
“That had bothered me, but I just accepted it as part of everything else with this pandemic that, you know, we're stuck with it,” said Gross.
Gross’ daughter is in a learning pod with two other kids.
In mid-October, the pod’s instructor discovered the three students had been added to a chat through the Google Hangouts app on the district-issued Chromebook.
The chat had grown to more than 120 students from at least three schools: Irvington Elementary School, Sabin Elementary School, and ACCESS Academy.
The instructor only discovered it because she was looking at their screens. No other teacher could monitor the chat.
Heather Leon has a 5th grader at ACCESS academy. She found out about that chat through Gross, then read through the messages on her son’s device.
“There were some red flags that came up,” said Leon.
Screenshots of the days-long conversation showed students tried to remove themselves from the chat and kept getting added back in. Many students were listed as “unknown users." Someone posted an inappropriate cartoon and a 7th grader posted they had joined using their younger sibling’s login information.
“Then that person posted a picture and said, "Here's me. I challenge everyone to post pictures of yourselves,’” Leon said. “That was alarming.”
Administrators at Irvington and Sabin shut off access to the chat for their students when they were notified.
ACCESS did not shut off the chat or notify parents. Screenshots showed the chat was still active two weeks later.
Gross said she was concerned there was no way for teachers or parents to know this was happening short of happening to see it on the screen.
“I would like PPS to give some parental controls to the Chromebook. I want to be able to set limitations. I want them to be very transparent about what limitations and restrictions they have set,” said Gross.
Kevin Crotchett, the director of learning technologies at Portland Public Schools, doesn’t believe the chat was set up with malicious intent.
“It grew and grew and grew until we had quite a few kids from different grade levels doing, from my perspective, what kids do online, which is they engage socially,” said Crotchett.
The former principal and father of two said he understands why parents were alarmed by the unmonitored chat.
“I definitely can understand. I mean, it's alarming to all of a sudden find out that this is there in a very, kind of, unsupervised way,” said Crotchett.
Crochett said while the users may have been listed as “unknown,” all the chat participants were PPS students.
He said while the district can monitor devices, they don’t have a parental control app on the Chromebooks, although they are looking into adding that option in the future.
Crotchett said parents may also have control options through their internet provider.
PPS spokeswoman Karen Werstein said student safety online and in-person is the district’s top concern. She said the district has been updating lessons to teach kids about appropriate online social interactions with people the student doesn’t know.
“This is an important lesson for all students on any social platform,” Werstein said. “We are also exploring tools to increase parental controls.”
Gross points to other large school districts in the region that already provide parental control tools.
Reynolds School District uses Securly, which provides both teacher supervision and parental controls.
The Beaverton School District has Classroom Orchestrator, which allows the teacher to see the student’s screen in real-time.
Beaverton School District officials said they were so concerned about Google chat that they disabled it for the entire district.
Steve Langford, chief information officer for the Beaverton School District, said he understands many districts struggle with the lack of controls in Google chat.
“There is a lack of centralized controls that allow monitoring of behavior and no ability for IT personnel to delete the groups,” Langford explained. “This reality, coupled with our concerns over student safety, was the reason why the Beaverton School District disabled student chat in Google.”
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