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How Cumberland County administrators plan to use a multicolored llama and AI to boost student mental health


When Cumberland County Schools personnel tell students to “talk to the llama,” they aren’t being facetious. 

Thanks to the Feb. 15 launch of Alongside, an app designed to provide mental health support to students in middle and high school, children in need can now talk to Kiwi the llama, a fluffy ombre avatar who uses AI — artificial intelligence — to provide resources and advice on more than 80 topics, ranging from friendship breakups to grief.

Dr. Natasha Scott, the executive director of student services, told CityView she came across the app at a conference for school counselors in Atlanta last summer. 

“They had a vendor expo and Alongside just happened to be one of the vendors that I spoke with,” she said. “I had them reach out to me and set up a meeting with some of my colleagues here.” 

Four months later, in November, the Cumberland County Board of Education unanimously approved a two-year, $348,694 contract with the Seattle-based developer. 

Scott said she’s spent much of the past seven months seeking feedback on the app, encouraging her employees and Cumberland County students to try out the free demo provided to the school system. 

“Kids had a very positive response to it,” she said. “We kept trying it and we kept talking to people.”

What does the app offer?

“We say talk to the llama, but the llama is really helping students to work through a series of exercises — social, emotional learning exercises, self-help-type exercises — to help kids develop some coping skills and strategies that they can use on their own,” Scott said.

According to a Nov. 7 presentation to the board by Scott, besides its adorable chatbot, Alongside also provides videos on an array of relevant topics, ways to set goals and options for journaling. 

In a video testimonial shared by Cumberland County Schools, Jessica Fikes, a sophomore at Seventy-First High School, said she found the app helpful. 

“I struggle with talking to people about certain topics and kind of telling people what’s wrong,” she said. “I feel like the app has helped with that a little bit … It’s also really good for organization, as I use the goals and my journal to help me with my thoughts and what I need to get done for the day.”

If the chatbot detects a risk of suicidal ideation or self-harm while engaging with a student, it will immediately notify a parent or guardian via text and notify the student’s school. Kiwi will also tell the student to call 988, the national 24-hour suicide and crisis lifeline, and will contact emergency services if the situation appears dire, according to Scott’s presentation.

According to a draft contract with Alongside, the school system will also have access to a live dashboard that tracks school- and district-specific insights on the topics students are struggling with and the resources they are using.

After obtaining parental permission via an electronic form or written form, students can access the app on an iOS or Android device or on the web with their school email, according to Cumberland County Schools. Though the app does not share information on individual conversations with parents unless there is a risk of harm to the student, students can authorize the app to share data with a school, parent or guardian and can request a meeting with their school support team.

At a Feb. 15 press conference at Seventy-First Classical Middle School, Dr. Elsa Friis, a licensed psychologist and the head of mental health at Alongside, said her team decided to create the app in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“We realized we were in a youth mental health crisis but, concurrently, only 15% of schools can find enough counselors to meet the rising needs of students,” she said.

School officials emphasized that the app is not intended to replace school counselors, but to act as a supplement for students who may be scared to share their feelings with others or who may be waiting to see a counselor.

“It is hard to show up for school and do all the things that we want students to do when they are silently suffering and worrying about all kinds of other stuff,” Scott said. “We want kids to know that it’s OK to ask for help about anything. And if they don’t want to talk to us, then talk to the llama.”

Scott encouraged parents with doubts to read through the frequently-asked questions on the school system’s website or try the free demo on Alongside’s website.

“Don’t just say no without doing a little more research into it first,” she said. “And it’s all right there on the website so that they can make whatever they feel is the best decision for their student.” 

And though Kiwi is happy to help, Scott said students must remember that not all issues can be solved by their furry friend.

“When they talk to the llama, if they’re talking about serious things like child abuse and suicidal ideation, the llama is going to talk to an adult,” she said. “Even Kiwi asks for help.”

Reporter Lexi Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@cityviewnc.com or 910-423-6500.

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Cumberland County Schools, mental health, AI, app