School leaders can impact online safety
January 9, 2023
The following article is part of a new series produced by nonprofit Common Sense Education.
With schools increasingly adopting tech tools, it’s easy to forget the challenges associated with tech misuse outside of the classroom.
Unfortunately, tech misuse can often impact student learning. Whether it’s a forwarded email or a series of text messages that someone took screenshots of, resolving conflicts and digital drama can often hijack school resources and take time away from learning.
What role do school leaders have in addressing how students engage online? How should schools address tech misuse?
As part of our ongoing series on digital citizenship, we’re highlighting school leaders who champion digital citizenship initiatives.
In this interview, ACSA member and Matthew Gage Middle School Principal Gary Reller shares helpful recommendations for schools to consider when addressing online safety.
Reller has spent the last seven years redefining what school safety looks and feels like, in and out of the classroom.
His leadership and insight are evidence of the incredible power of keeping kids safe in online spaces.
What does tech use and digital engagement look like at the school? All of our students have Chromebooks. Teachers have access to the Google Suite and our students are accessing their learning via Google Classroom and engaging with a number of different applications, such as BrainPop, Flip, Snap and Read.
What are some examples of tech misuses that occur at your site? How do you resolve them? Safety and security have always been number one in our priorities. And it doesn’t only align itself to when kids are at school — it is also online.
Students are searching out things that may be harmful to themselves or others. [When that occurs] we have a team that reaches out to that student and is working with that student to determine if there is a risk assessment that needs to be done.
And that’s not only at school. When things happen in the evenings, I get an email and we’re notified immediately. I look up the student and call the parent to make sure that our children are safe.
How do you make digital citizenship a priority, given the competing interests or initiatives that school leaders often face, either from their districts or from their own community? Well, you have to have the right people on the bus. My philosophy is that my kids deserve the very best teachers, the very best counselors, the very best custodian, the very best office staff. I only hire the best.
So when I do hire the best, I make sure that they’re going to be able to carry out some of these initiatives that are very, very important and need to be prioritized on school campuses.
Absolutely. So get the right team together and you won’t have that issue, right? You can’t have competing interests because you’re not going to get the support that you need. You have to continue to have conversations with your directors, your assistant superintendents, your superintendents, about some of the things that you want to put into place.
Can you point to some of the resources that you’re using and examples of some of the digital citizenship work you all are doing? Well, I would say Common Sense Education, start there. There is such an amazing amount of information and support that you can just pull directly from to start your own digital citizenship program.
What are ways to support parents in addressing digital citizenship? Definitely work with your parents and your community … They’re the ones that need to have buy-in and understand the “why” behind digital citizenship.
We also have a great relationship with the Riverside Police Department. I give them a call and they go do a welfare check right away on those students to ensure that they are safe online. We then follow up with them the next day with counseling.
How do you get middle school students to get off their phones? With smartphones, kids have access to everything, 24/7. With all the social media, Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat — and there’s many others that are popping up every day that we don’t even know about — those [platforms] are creating havoc on school campuses.
What we’ve done here is to ensure that, one, students have access to cellphones in an emergency. But, two, they don’t have access to cellphones during the school day to disrupt instruction and to utilize social media for some things that might cause cyberbullying or digital drama on campus.
Students have to put their cellphones in their backpack when they enter our gates, and they cannot take them out until they leave. And in the eight weeks we’ve been in school this year, we have not had a single cyberbullying incident.
How have students responded to not having access to their devices? We have increased our student achievement based upon our student grades. At lunch, it is amazing to watch kids talk to each other. They’re not sitting on their phone, taking pictures of each other, doing TikToks and all that stuff.
They’re actually talking to each other, which is really amazing. Inside the classroom, teachers are able to focus on instruction, instead of focusing on telling kids to put their cellphones away.
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Additional Resources
Riverside Unified offers an array of resources to help school leaders across the district. For helpful documents to implement at your site, feel free to click on the links below.
  • TK DC Lesson #3
  • Kinder DC Self-Paced Pear Deck Lesson
Gary Reller’s top tips for digital citizenship
  • Assess your safety protocols
  • Make it a priority
  • Have a shared vision
  • Make resources accessible
  • Collaborate with community
  • Turn off phones
  • Promote media balance
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