Montgomery County Public Schools recently announced the upcoming launch of a mobile app called “Student Strong” that will provide students with mental health resources and the ability to report instances of bullying, harassment and assault from their mobile phones.
Some parents and community members have voiced concern about the app’s privacy.
Michael Fryar is a mental health attorney from Gaithersburg who has worked closely with local Child Protective Services for years. He also ran for the Montgomery County Board of Education twice and has two children in MCPS.
Fryar told Bethesda Beat he has concerns about the cost of ensuring the app is HIPAA compliant. He said he’s also concerned about the nature of “the audience they’re marketing to” and how students will use the app.
“There’s a general perception among adults that children are a certain way,” he said, “and it’s unfortunately not considered when starting to design things like this.”
He added, “This is going to be abused like you would not believe.”
MCPS staff and students who were involved in the app’s development are speaking up to address concerns like Fryar’s.
Board member Lynne Harris first began collaborating with several Montgomery County high school students, now graduates, to create the mobile app during the 2020 COVID-19 shut-down.
Student developer Anika Seth, graduate of Montgomery Blair High School, said the idea for the project stemmed from student concerns that MCPS’ response to allegations of sexual assault during the pandemic was inadequate. She said students wanted the ability to file reports with MCPS on their own in a quick and accessible way.
Fellow Blair graduate Kathryn LaLonde worked closely with Seth to crowd-source, brainstorm and ultimately develop the app. She said the two of them received a $10,000 stipend from MCPS to fund their work. The only other monies she remembers being spent on the app were used to secure its license through Apple and to pay for translation services so it could be launched in Spanish.
Both Seth and LaLonde confirmed that the app stores no student data and merely acts as a conduit to online tools.
Harris said student developers were excited about being able to place vital mental health resources and reporting capabilities directly in the hands of their peers. She described the development process as “fully informed by student experience and student wisdom.”
Seth and LaLonde also received input from professionals with the county’s Domestic Violence Coordinating Council to ensure the app provided access to “real, straightforward, straight-shooting, age-appropriate information,” Harris said.
For students who don’t have smartphones, the app can be accessed online from a laptop, desktop computer or tablet, Harris said. She said there will be no age restrictions, and elementary school students will be welcome to use the app’s resources as needed.
In the two years that it’s been in development, Harris said the app underwent “multiple steps of vetting.”
Former MCPS chief technology officer Pete Cevenini worked closely with Harris and the student developers to ensure the app’s data security. He said parents initially voiced privacy concerns, and the development team listened to their feedback and actively worked to address it.
The app doesn’t store any personal information, Cevenini said. He described it as more of a “smart website” or a “passthrough” to relevant resources.
“It acts as a repository for all of the important things student may need for mental wellness,” he said, “but it doesn’t store anything. Students can access the resources they need without compromising any safety or security.”
Cevenini said the app was also designed in such a way that it can be easily updated as resources and forms change. For instance, he said the new National Suicide Hotline went live after the app had already been created, but students were able to add in the phone number without any difficulty. He said the app will continue to be updated with the most current tools and resources.
“If it weren’t for the tireless work of the students and Ms. Harris, this app wouldn’t have come to fruition,” he said. “They really worked hard to champion the app and […] make sure they were able to meet the needs of their peers based on what their peers were articulating they needed.”