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Administrators battle threats from anonymous apps

After School app allows posts to school-specific message boards
The app After School allows teenage students to post on an anonymous message board specific to their school.
The app After School allows teenage students to post on an anonymous message board specific to their school.

Anonymous apps popular among high school students continue to create problems for administrators looking to root out cyberbullying and threats of violence.

In 2014, Yik Yak drew concern over its ability to connect users within a 10-mile radius to an anonymous message board. In 2015, the app After School grew rapidly, allowing more than 2 million high school students to post anonymously on a message board specific to their school.

“It’s important for kids to be able to express themselves because it lets them seek help from one another without fear of being judged,” Michael Callahan, co-creator of After School, said in an interview with DA. Most students would rather talk to a peer than to a parent or teacher about sexuality, eating disorders and drugs, he adds.

The app detects inappropriate posts with both human and computer moderators prior to publication. If a student posts something such as, “I’m thinking about suicide” or “I may be pregnant,” the app’s mascot will pop up and ask “Would you like to talk to someone about this?” with a Yes or No button.

If the student chooses yes, they are connected to a trained staff member available 24/7 to talk them through their problem. If they choose no, the post will remain on the app if it’s appropriate. If not, it will be deleted.

“We’re on the same team as the schools and parents,” Callahan says. “We have to work together to fix and address these issues, and we’re extremely receptive to working with administrators.”

Callahan advises administrators to contact the company via its website should an issue arise. He also advises administrators to enter contact information on After School’s new nationwide first responder system, which detects threats and alerts local police and school administrators.

Violent threats

Despite the security measures, threats and inappropriate content were reportedly posted in several districts in the past year.

In November, an After School user from Robert E. Lee High School, part of Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, posted a photo of a gun with a message warning students about something “going down” at the high school the next day.

A student reported the post to Principal Deirdre Lavery, who notified the police. Law enforcement determined the threat was not credible. This was the district’s only incident with the app, she says.

“We can work with kids and help them understand the impact using these apps has, particularly given that they are anonymous,” Lavery says. “We don’t want it to become a black and white issue and say, ‘Don’t use these apps.’ For some kids, it’s a great outlet. But if used irresponsibly, there could be consequences for users.”

Administrators should also keep parents informed about new apps students are using, and ensure they know whom to contact if trouble arises, Lavery advises.

“We want to work in a shared way to combat these things, and make sure kids aren’t doing something that will lead to bigger consequences,” Lavery says. “For us it’s broader than focusing on an app—it’s about what kind of community we create in our building where everyone feels safe and valued.”