New service called 'Bark' helps teachers monitor and protect children from online bullying

Posted at 7:59 AM, Feb 05, 2020

CLEVELAND — When students go to school, parents expect them to be safe from intruders but also from bullying.

More access to technology and the internet as part of a school's curriculum means more chances for students to run across online predators or inappropriate and mean conversations from classmates.

On top of the usual tasks that fall on a school technology coordinator, Mike Cruz at St. Peter School in Lorain also reviews anything flagged as inappropriate on the school's computer network.

"I have seven issues to review right now," Cruz said while he flipped through his computer.

He uses a program called Bark and its algorithm to find inappropriate comments in students emails and in apps like google documents.

"Go stand by the door you big crybaby," Cruz read. "That's what someone said to someone."

When Bark flags a message or picture that might be a problem, it sends a notification to school employees like Cruz and to the student's parent, if they have the app set up.

"We got to intervene when a kid was having a problem," said Cruz, referring to the one time in the last year that a message he reviewed prompted him to alert other adults.

Still, Cruz says when he reached out to other schools nearby, he says most told him they don't use anything like Bark.

The company's most recent report shows that in 2019, the program "analyzed more than 873.8 million messages across texts, email, YouTube, and 30+ apps and social media platforms not counting school-based accounts like the one that exists at St. Peter School.

76.2% of tweens and 78.4% of teens experienced cyberbullying as a bully, victim, or witness

Mental Health
55.1% of tweens and 67.1% of teens engaged in conversations about depression ranging from mild pessimism suicide

86.8% of tweens and 89.6% of teens expressed or experienced violent subject matter/thoughts

75.5% of tweens and 84.6% of teens engaged in conversations surrounding drugs/alcohol.

Bark said 92 schools and districts in Ohio use their program, but there are more than 600 districts in the state.

"Parents are fighting these harms on a number of fronts," said Case Western Reserve University School of Law IP Venture Clinic Director Andrew Geronimo.

To help, Geronimo thinks programs like Bark can be helpful navigating a delicate balance between allowing students to be connected while protecting them.

"I think it serves a little bit of a middle ground between banning your kid from having a cell phone to being over your kids shoulder constantly saying, 'Who is that? Who liked your photo? What did you post? What does that acronym mean?"

Cruz isn't able to directly monitor apps like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Only parents who sign up and pay for the service can use Bark to monitor those kinds of accounts.

Cruz can read through each of his student's email addresses because the school provides those accounts, but that would also take a lot of time. He says Bark monitoring those accounts for him not only saves time but also keeps him out of emails that don't pose a threat.

Geronimo says that level of relative privacy comes with a trade-off.

"[Monitoring systems like Bark] have your location data, who knows what [families are] texting about," said Geronimo. "You might be talking about medical issues or personal family issues over text."

Bark tells News 5 it uses encryption and extra layers of protection to keep information safe.

But previous data breaches show that any technology can be targeted by hackers.

"There's nothing you can do if bad actors come in, hack that database, and all of a sudden, all of your child's information is available in the seedy parts of the internet," said Geronimo.

That's the rock and hard place that schools in 2020 are stuck between. Even with potential threats from hackers, more students are using more devices every day and Cruz says keeping students safe means adults should know what's happening on them.

"The more technology grows, the more we need to be on it," said Cruz.

St. Peter School has been using Bark for roughly a year to try it out. Cruz says the next step is to get parents to sign up so they can also be part of the monitoring process.