There’s a chance your student, or someone they know, has at some point considered ending their lives. According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24, and one in five students have seriously considered going through with it. The risk of suicide has been a constant for many years, but the pandemic brought about new concerns and at the same time, new technology to help.

“Recovering from the pandemic we saw a rise in student mental health needs,” said Timothy Johnson, behavioral health services coordinator at DMPS.

When COVID-19 moved entire school districts online for a time, it increased a feeling of isolation among students. At the same time, every student began connecting primarily online using their own district computer, giving schools an opening to monitor concerning behaviors in a way not available to them before the pandemic.

Des Moines Public Schools is planning a software rollout this week that will help identify students in crisis.  The new software, called Beacon, will be installed on all district computers and will help school counselors identify and respond to mental health emergencies among students before they take a tragic and irreversible turn.

“Beacon identifies students at risk of suicide or possible harm to others,” said a spokesperson from  GoGuardian, the company that created Beacon. “When an alert is generated, Beacon provides content rich data to allow responders to make fast and effective decisions.”

The software analyzes student browsing across search engines, social media, email, web apps, and more. The alert goes to a predetermined team of school staff members to respond and help a student in crisis. For example, school counselors are first responders.

“When the designated staff receive an alert, the safety assessment protocol starts,” Johnson said. “Depending on the severity of the alert, an assessment is completed, and parents are notified. If the situation is high-risk, meaning more help is needed, then the recommendation is to take the student for further evaluation at the hospital or we call for a mobile crisis unit.”

DMPS staff cannot be present for the majority of a student’s time or monitor influences outside of school and on private devices. But, Johnson believes the software could work as a safety net for students using district devices who are unable to ask for help.

“Beacon was selected for what it can do to help staff proactively support students who are not telling us they are struggling with their mental health,” Johnson said.

Beacon is part of a larger GoGuardian system that helps teachers and students communicate effectively online, focuses students on their work, protects students from harmful or inappropriate content online, and notify DMPS counselors and/or other school support staff if the system detects a student is searching, creating, viewing, or interacting with online content that may be harmful to themselves or others.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact your school counselor for low cost or free counseling options.

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