I-Team investigates after New Berlin mom says 13-year-old accessed sexually explicit content on school learning app

Posted at 7:11 AM, Feb 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-16 08:11:38-05

NEW BERLIN — On a weekend night, Megan Bersch's 13-year-old was on her school Chromebook. Bersch, who says she regularly monitors her child's online activity, wasn't prepared for what she was about to see.

"When I grabbed the Chromebook and looked at the screen, that's when I discovered she's in these Padlets, you know chat rooms talking to other people," said Bersch.

Bersch says inside these chat rooms on a learning app called Padlet, she saw posts about drugs, self-harm, and suicide and says some posted naked pictures of themselves.

"I'm sitting here like freaking out I'm like I am in possession of child porn right now, like you know that's a big thing for me," she told the I-Team's Kristin Byrne.

"I'm holding a school issue device full of child porn like what do I do with this?" she said.

Bersch reported it to her daughter's New Berlin school.

"They said they're responsible for keeping kids safe on district-issued technology during school hours and outside of school hours, it's our responsibility," Bersch said.

"I didn't know they existed, how can I put parental controls on account that I never consented my daughter to have," she said.

Bersch says the school connected her to a school resource officer who filed an incident report.

The I-Team contacted the School District of New Berlin. The superintendent sent us the below statement:

"The School District of New Berlin takes our students' internet safety seriously. We regularly review, update and implement safeguards to keep students safe online, and internet safety and digital citizenship are taught throughout the district. That said, it's extremely unfortunate and disappointing that students can access inappropriate content through what are meant to be educational tools and apps.

We often remind families of our efforts and the role they can play, and parents are required to acknowledge they have read and agree to the district's Appropriate Use of Technology policy, which in part "emphasizes the importance of responsible use and of parent and staff supervision in monitoring use of technology.

We do have protections and safeguards in place when students use one of our devices inside or outside our schools; when students take the device home, we provide parents with additional options to manage content, as well.

As we become aware of new, unintended or unforeseen issues, we take steps to address the concerns and implement changes as necessary. We'll continue to investigate what more we, as a district, can do to improve our internet safety practices and educate parents about the apps we use and how they can help support our efforts."

Titania Jordan started a company called Bark. It's a service that monitors children's online activity.

"It is unfortunately not an isolated incident. You know at Bark technologies per our 2020 annual data over 70% of children will encounter sexual content. whether that's on personal school issue devices and accounts, which is, it's hard to hear that, as a parent, especially if they are not ready," Jordan said.

Jordan believes it's a shared responsibility for schools and parents to protect kids from this kind of exposure and she feels these online platforms shouldn't get a pass.

"Hold these platforms accountable. The fact that this media was even able to be uploaded to their server is another problem," Jordan said.

The I-Team contacted Padlet. The CEO, Nitesh Goel, provided the below statement:

"Padlet is a platform for creative self-expression and collaboration. We do not allow content that is sexually explicit, or that promotes self-harm.

The usage of our app grew fivefold during the pandemic and with that came cases of people using our platform for purposes that it isn't intended for. It has been an uphill task for our small team to keep up with all the challenges that this has brought, but we have been hard at work over the last couple of months trying to prevent objectionable content from being uploaded on our platform.

Just this month we launched a system that allows us to detect and delete sexually explicit content within seconds of it being uploaded on Padlet. We are now actively working on a system for detecting self-harm. We hope to have it ready by the end of this month.

I'm sorry we couldn't be one step ahead of this problem but I promise we won't be too many steps behind. We are committed to keeping Padlet a safe place for creativity and collaboration for all our members."

"Is Padlet the real danger or is it just one of the many apps where this content can be accessed by kids?" the I-Team's Kristin Byrne asked Jordan.

"Yeah, Padlet is not the main culprit. It is the unfettered access to technology that children have that is unmonitored and really goes unaware," said Jordan.

Jordan says difficult conversations with our kids about online dangers need to be happening much earlier.

"If you think you need to talk to your child about pornography at 11 think again try nine and it's hard. it's not easy," Jordan continued.

Bersch no longer allows her daughter on the Padlet app and most of the time, she's not sending her to school with her Chromebook either. She doesn't want to discover her kid in a chat room with strangers again.

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