AWS Public Sector Blog

How Gaggle’s ReachOut program uses AWS to ease the K12 mental health crisis

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, American children were in a mental health crisis. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 3,000 high school students attempted suicide each day, with an even more tragic 6,000 losing their lives to suicide over the course of a year. In fact, in 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death in children and adolescents.

Then COVID-19 struck.

During the first summer of the pandemic, the CDC reported that one in four young adults (ages 18–24) had seriously considered suicide in the previous 30 days. In the summer of 2022, the agency reported a 50 percent increase in visits to the emergency room for suicide attempts by girls aged 12–17. According to CDC reporting, many of these thoughts and actions were attributed to a lack of connectedness due to pandemic-related isolation.

US schools are doing their best to support students, but with staffing shortages and additional challenges exacerbated by the widespread disruption in teaching and learning, the education community needs solutions to help with recovery. Students also need help available to them when they need it, and that may not fall within the hours of the school day.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) Partner, Gaggle, is an education technology (EdTech) company that delivers solutions that focus on helping to keep students safe. Their most prominent solution is Gaggle Safety, which uses machine learning technology to flag concerning content in students’ school-issued accounts for review and blocks potentially harmful content.This helps K12 school districts monitor early warning signs so they can take action to protect students from harming themselves of others.

But Gaggle’s leadership felt that they needed to do more than identify students in crisis—they needed to provide support systems to school districts to help those students in need. That’s why Gaggle developed ReachOut, a mental health hotline built on AWS that connects K12 students to trained Gaggle support counselors, anywhere, anytime.

Engaging at-risk students earlier

“There have been several studies by national organizations showing that kids who do something drastic put out multiple cries for help before it escalates,” says Jacob Huss, senior client success manager at Gaggle. “We knew that creating a resource to engage kids sooner could alleviate some of the burdens on school counseling offices—and possibly save lives.”

Working with the tech team at AWS, Gaggle created ReachOut, a 24/7 hotline where students can access support for any mental health–related issue, from needing emotional assistance in navigating a problem, to more severe conflicts or abuse.

With Gaggle ReachOut, school districts get their own dedicated “hotline number,” which has omnichannel communication capabilities, so students can elect to get help in real-time by phone, SMS text, or web chat. Each district can socialize the hotline to students and parents in the way that works best for the district’s community. Gaggle also works directly with school districts on the best plan to introduce Gaggle ReachOut to their students and families, whether via monthly emails to students’ district email addresses, promotion within the student portal, or through the district’s learning management system (LMS).

Providing students with critical, in-the-moment support with the cloud

“My mentor has a saying: To be listened to is to be loved. And that’s what ReachOut does,” says Gaggle founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Jeff Patterson. “When a student has a mental health problem, a conflict, or is feeling depressed or lonely, ReachOut provides the critical in-the-moment support they need.”

Gaggle’s experience has shown that “students with mental health problems or emotional distress often turn to their peers for help,” notes Huss. “We wanted to create a way to provide students with assistance from trained professionals—in real time.” For that reason, the ReachOut hotline is staffed by trained, certified hotline counselors called “ReachOut Responders.”

Critical mental health support powered by AWS

Real-time access to mental-health support also means enabling students to contact ReachOut Responders in the method of their choice, including by phone, SMS text, or web chat. And since ReachOut uses Amazon Lex, an artificial intelligence (AI) service with advanced natural language models, districts have the option of providing support with ReachOut Responders in different languages. This allows students to receive in-the-moment support in the language that feels most comfortable.

Using technology to reach many more students

From the school district side of the equation, ReachOut is designed to help staff meet the increased demand for mental health support. Gaggle support counselors are connected to schools to provide school counselors with daily updates on ReachOut student interactions, which typically happen outside of school hours. Educators and counselors can follow up at the start of the school day with the students who have requested in ReachOut conversations that they would like their school counselors’ attention.

“There’s a shortage of mental health professionals available to work in schools, and ReachOut eases the burden on school counselors by performing that first level of triage,” says Patterson. “Now, counselors can use their time more effectively because ReachOut already did that initial work and identified the five students who need immediate support when they walk in the next day.”

With the ongoing student mental health crisis, there are simply not enough therapists to meet the demand—but technology can help. “Districts would love to have one of their counselors or psychologists on call 24/7, but that’s just too time-consuming and expensive,” says Patterson. “But by doing it through Amazon Connect, we’re able to consolidate therapeutic support and make it an affordable solution for all school systems.” By offering students in-the-moment support via any channel of their choice and then connecting them to therapeutic resources within their school, ReachOut is helping to bridge the gap, which benefits schools and students alike. In fact, in a 2022 report by EdWeek Research Center of nearly 1,000 K12 educators in the US who use student safety platforms, a majority of respondents believe that Gaggle significantly helps to prevent school violence, student suicide, harassment of LGBTQ students, child abuse or neglect, and more.

Dr. Karen A. Fildes, director of technology and communications for New Fairfield Public Schools summed up ReachOut’s benefit to students: “ReachOut is a gamechanger in crisis support for our students, particularly in a time when it is needed more than ever. Having someone to reach out to that can listen and direct students to appropriate services will save lives.”

Want to learn more about how Gaggle ReachOut can support students in your school district? Visit the Gaggle ReachOut main page.

For more information on how AWS can help your school district become more efficient and secure, visit our AWS for Education page.

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Annmarie Lehner

Annmarie Lehner

Annmarie is the K12 business development and strategy leader at Amazon Web Services (AWS) where she leads a team of technical and sales business development managers who influence major policies and funding agencies, and engage with primary education institutions as they consider cloud platforms to drive down costs and support innovation in their districts.

Liana Gamber-Thompson

Liana Gamber-Thompson

Liana is a senior marketing manager for K12 on the state and local government (SLG)/K12 field marketing team at Amazon Web Services (AWS). She helps showcase innovative tools, cloud education programs, and third-party education technology solutions that rely on AWS to help make education always available, personal, and lifelong for everyone.