June 20, 2024

Life-Saving Tech: How Gilbert Unified School District Used GoGuardian Beacon to Strengthen Mental Health Support

GoGuardian Team

At Gilbert Unified in Arizona, the commitment to student well-being extends far beyond academics. Gilbert has taken an active role in creating a school culture that prioritizes student well-being, leveraging technology to create an early intervention system for potential health issues before they become crises.

Spearheading the district's technological initiatives, Jon Castelhano, Chief Technology Officer, is a seasoned educator with a deep understanding of technology's role in learning. His journey began in the classroom, where he witnessed the early days of computers in which there was only one in the back of the class that students had to take turns using for very basic reinforcement or practice for routine functions. In more recent years, he helped his district launch a 1:1 set-up that matched every student with a computer.

As tech became more integrated into classrooms, Jon transitioned to an instructional technology coach, guiding other educators on its effective use.

"Going through college, I knew I wanted to do something meaningful; something with a real purpose. I believe in public education – it's the backbone of our country. That's what led me to the teaching path,” he explained. “Once I got there, the technology came along and it was just incredible to see what was happening and how it was being integrated into the classroom. This was in the very early 2000s, when there were anywhere from three to six computers in the classroom, devices were being networked, and software began progressing to be more than routine practice. That's what’s kept me in the education space all these years."

A delicate balance

One of the biggest challenges facing districts like Gilbert is the delicate balance between empowering students with technology and ensuring their safety online. With a one-to-one, take-home computers for older students and a one-to-one, in-class program for younger students, the responsibility to observe student activity and intervene when necessary becomes paramount. 

“The challenge comes with knowing if a student is struggling and needs assistance from the appropriate staff. Without a tool such as Beacon in place, we would not necessarily know this and would not be able to intervene, make parents aware, and provide them with the assistance they need,” he elaborated.

"We're putting this technology into our students' hands," Jon stated. "So we have a responsibility, in my opinion, to not just check what they're doing, but also be able to use that technology as a resource for our adults and staff to assist our students with whatever they are going through."

The power of early intervention

This responsibility goes beyond simply monitoring internet activity. Early intervention for potential mental health issues is a crucial aspect of student well-being. Jon highlighted the importance of using technology as a tool to identify students who might be struggling.

"Students don't always reach out, necessarily," he said, "but they may be reaching out through technology in other ways such as our district's online Tip Line or communicating through email or Google Docs.”

This is where GoGuardian Beacon comes in. 

Beacon, a student safety platform, provides educators with a comprehensive view of student online activity, offering actionable insights into the various stages of suicide and self-harm intent, including research, ideation, and active planning. 

By proactively alerting educators to searches in these categories, Beacon helps identify early warning signals before it's too late. This allows educators to intervene effectively, ensuring that students feel safe and supported – a crucial prerequisite for successful learning and overall well-being.

At Gilbert, Beacon is successfully deployed to create a system around early intervention, which has resulted in life-saving moments. Jon shared with the GoGuardian team how Beacon helped school staff respond to a mental health crisis, working with the student’s family to save the student’s life.

The student exhibited signs of suicidal intent through online searches, and it triggered an alert in the Beacon system. "The alert came in and it was addressed so quickly," he shared. "The caregivers were contacted and they were actually able to go up to the student’s bedroom, intervene, and get help for them immediately."

With Beacon, this student was quickly identified and provided with the intervention and support they needed, where they may have been overlooked without the aid of technology.

"It's powerful. If everyone's using the system how it’s intended, it can help. If it can help one student, it's worth it."

Building a culture of support

Jon emphasized that the successful implementation of a tool like Beacon requires more than just the technology itself. A collaborative effort across the entire district hierarchy is key. "It can't just be tech services or just the individual schools saying ‘we need this.’ It has to be at the highest level all the way down to the site level."

This means securing buy-in from the school board, involving cabinet members in the decision-making process, and equipping school staff with the necessary training and support. "We were lucky we had a cabinet in the district that was very supportive of these types of things."

Equipping educators, empowering students

Empowering educators with the right tools is another critical factor in Gilbert's success story. Beacon's intuitive interface and comprehensive features, such as the ability to view browsing history, notes, and rationale tabs, provide educators with valuable insights into student activity.

"It's not about catching someone doing something wrong," Jon explained. "It's about being able to see the bigger story and understand the context." This context allows educators to differentiate between concerning searches and legitimate research activities.

"There are times when a student might be doing a paper or something like that. So to be able to look and acknowledge that quickly is super helpful. I like the way notes can also be placed. When features like that are used, it makes it easier to see what was happening right before or if there's a prior history. It's just another tool in our toolkits to support students."

A beacon of hope for the future

Gilbert Unified School District's experience with GoGuardian Beacon serves as a strong example of how technology can be leveraged to support the safeguarding of student well-being. By equipping educators with the right tools and fostering a culture of collaboration and support, districts can create a safety net for their learners, allowing them to thrive both online and offline.