Lawrence school board approves renewal of Gaggle software

photo by: Josie Heimsoth/Journal-World

The Lawrence school board gathered for a meeting on July 8, 2024 at the Lawrence school district offices, 110 McDonald Dr.

After a public commenter addressed concerns with the Lawrence school board renewing the annual subscription for a security system monitoring students’ computer use, the board held further discussions before ultimately renewing their deal with the provider, Gaggle, on a 6-1 vote.

During Monday’s school board meeting, board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood requested to further discuss the annual subscription to Gaggle, a software system designed to detect concerning behavior in the things students are typing, sending, and searching on district-issued computers and devices, which has sparked controversy in the district.

When the district added Gaggle to the district devices, student journalists raised concerns with the software flagging their content. The software was adapted to help protect their published work, but now there are concerns about the art students are creating, which is now also being flagged.

“At this time, I will not be in support of renewing Gaggle,” Cadue-Blackwood said. “I do support mental health services, it’s what I do for a living, but at the same time I don’t want to take away student creativity.”

Additionally, as the Journal-World reported, the software has had some implementation issues which included sending several alerts to building principals or other district administrators, many times outside of school hours.

“I do agree that there was some difficulty in the rollout of things and we didn’t have the notification process set up in a way that seemed to make a lot of sense,” said school board member and previous president Shannon Kimball. “My observation is that the district staff have since corrected that.”

Despite some conflicts, Superintendent Anthony Lewis said in the past year, the software has made a difference in saving students’ lives.

The system produces real-time, around-the-clock analysis of potentially concerning behavior from students. Examples include indicators of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, cyberbullying and credible threats against others. The technology also scans pictures, videos, attachments and links via a process that combines artificial intelligence and human moderators.

Kimball said that with the renewal of the subscription, she hopes it will continue being a resource to help students district-wide.

“I value and respect the work our student (organizations) do and I value and respect the work our student journalists do,” Kimball said. “But I also believe very firmly that as a board and as a district we have certain responsibilities we have to fulfill, and this is a tool that is helping us do that.”

The school board approved the renewal of the annual subscription – costing $53,411.25 – to Gaggle with a vote of 6-1, with Cadue-Blackwood opposed.

In other business, board members:

* Elected school board president Kelly Jones to continue as president for a third term. Jones has served on the board since 2018, and since then, she has offered changes to the district’s dress code policy to eliminate discrimination in its application to female students and helped write the board’s equity policy, Lewis said.

Lewis said she also has prioritized the board’s commitment to improving working conditions and compensation for the district’s staff.

“On behalf of all of our students, staff and school community members, we thank you for your service during your second term,” Lewis said. “And we appreciate you for wanting to continue to a third term as our Lawrence Board of Education president.”

In the election for vice president, the board chose G.R. Gordon Ross.

* Discussed the school district’s partnership with RSP & Associates for annual enrollment analysis, facility utilization assessments and enrollment projections. The total cost for these services would not exceed $100,000.

The school board decided to not make any decisions at the Monday meeting, and they are expected to further discuss the issue at a future board meeting.

* Set the meal prices for the 2024-25 school year, which will increase by $0.10 for paid meals across all grades. For elementary students, lunch will cost $3, middle school students will pay $3.20 and high school students will pay $3.25. There were no increase for adult lunches.

Following the meeting, the Lawrence school board recessed to an executive session to discuss matters relating to non-elected personnel with no action to follow.

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