Anonymous school safety reporting system leads to more than 1,000 tips across N.C.

Monday, February 3, 2020
Anonymous school safety reporting system leads to more than 1,000 tips across N.C.
Anonymous school safety reporting system leads to more than 1,000 tips across N.C.

MIAMI (WTVD) -- Their work stations sit in a nondescript office in a nondescript building, and that's probably the point.

The mission of the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, after all, is not about making a scene. The program is instead devoted to quietly preventing dangerous situations.

"We have built this and studied this and analyzed this and researched this," Mark Barden, co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, the organization that created the program, said. "I made a promise to honor my little son, Daniel, to do everything I could to protect other families from this profound pain. This call center, this crisis center, is a manifestation of that process that began with this promise."

Daniel Barden was among the 20 first-graders massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012. Six educators were also killed.

"To watch these professionals lean into their jobs in such an amazing way, and work with someone who might be in a crisis or mental health situation or any other situation, this person is their lifeline. It's incredible," Barden said.

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The anonymous reporting system, which is now being deployed throughout North Carolina's 115 school districts, empowers students, educators and administrators to recognize signs and signals of individuals who may be at risk of hurting themselves or others and anonymously report this information through an app, website or 24/7 Crisis Center Hotline.

Those tips all flow to a team of highly trained counselors at Say Something's national office in Miami, where they receive and respond to tips in real time.

"There are warning signs before someone hurts themselves or someone else," Barden said. "What we're doing here is training kids to recognize those signs and take that next step and connect with this crisis center."

Meet the counselors on the front lines

Say Something encourages users to anonymously report observed threats, behaviors, actions and harassment, including but not limited to: assault, abuse (physical and verbal), bullying, depression, hopelessness, reckless behavior, social isolation or withdrawal, substance abuse, suicide threats, theft or weapons.

The threats -- whether submitted via app, website or telephone -- are all collected by the 24/7 crisis center hosted by trained counselors who serve as a kind of triage to determine the credibility, context and urgency of the threat.

WATCH: Say Something counselor Bijal Mehta shows what happens when a tip comes in

Say Something counselor Bijal Mehta explains what happens when a tip comes into the Crisis Center.

The counselors, meanwhile, are able to engage with the tipster in real time through talk, text, email or however the tipster first made contact. Simultaneously, the counselors then connect with designated staff at the respective school to determine the next plan of action.

"Our crisis counselors are taught to triage these tips and meticulously analyze and go through every word, to gather information and ask for additional evidence," Jessica Neely, Crisis Center manager, said. "When we get exact locations of our students, when we get screenshots from Instagram and Snapchat and other social media, it adds so much credibility to the tip."

Neely, a former educator herself, supervises a team made up of 12 full-time counselors. The center plans to add at least three more in the near future.

The counselors are mostly women, many bilingual, and they all boast extensive resumes in a variety of fields including education, law enforcement, public safety, healthcare and medicine.

"I think our mission has evolved over time since the inception of the organization," counselor Bijal Mehta, a former child support enforcement officer, said. "There's a larger generation of young students who are more apt to experiencing mental health disorders and they're reaching out for the services, which is amazing to see."

North Carolina's integration

The North Carolina General Assembly first voted to enter a partnership with Sandy Hook Promise in 2018, allocating more than $5 million in the 2018 budget (operational expenses each year are about $650,000).

The law also established the NC Center for Safer Schools, a division of the Department of Public Instruction.

Robert "Bo" Trumbo, a former Secret Service agent, was tapped to lead the division and oversee the extensive assignment to introduce the program to all school districts and strengthen relationships between school districts and their local law and public safety agencies.

"The beauty of this is this gives a common platform across all the districts -- whether they are urban or rural, or whether they have staffing issues or don't have staffing issues, it can conform and be flexible to the staff they have," Trumbo said. "We depend on a lot of people beyond ourselves."

According to Trumbo, each school district needs about two to three months of training and organization before connecting with the crisis center and going live.

There are also four key steps to implementation:

  • Appoint 3-5 member threat assessment point team among staff at district level
  • Appoint 3-5 member point teams among staff at each individual school (usually an administrator, the school resource officer, or nurse, among others)
  • Train students, teachers and staffers how to use app and how to identify warning signs
  • Streamline communications between individual schools, law enforcement agencies and 911 communications center

"It's all about building partnerships that you may not even know exist," Trumbo said. "Even in my previous life, we had strong partnerships with state and local counterparts in law enforcement, public safety, emergency management. The same applies here."

Integration started first with a number of smaller districts going online and live with the Crisis Center on Nov. 4. Now, about three months later, administrators confirm 47 N.C. school districts are live, while seven are considered "ready" and will be connected to the Crisis Center in a matter of days.

The remaining 62 districts, including the bigger districts such as Wake County Public School System, are in various stages of implementation, meaning the entire state will be logged on by the spring.

47 of N.C.'s school districts have implemented the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System. More than 1,000 credible tips have come in from N.C. schools.

Charter schools are also in the mix, with 68 campuses online and another 13 currently implementing the system.

"The schools are a melting pot of how the community exists anyway," Trumbo said. "As these students build peer-to-peer relationships and build trust with one another, hopefully, the trends show the app as a rock in the water but the ripple that goes out is going to build on these threat assessment teams."

System already proving successful in Pennsylvania

North Carolina is the second state to implement the anonymous reporting system statewide after Pennsylvania, which went live Jan. 14, 2019.

Last December, the ABC11 I-Team traveled to Harrisburg to hear from officials about the immediate impact the system has made on school safety in the Commonwealth.

"I know that we have intervened on an act of school violence where officers removed a weapon from the student at school," Program Director Brittany Kline said. "Someone submitted the tip through the app, it came to us, and our crisis center contacted the school immediately. The student resource officer took the tip, went to the student and got the weapon from the student."

In the first six months after full integration, Safe2Say PA received 23,494 tips. That excludes any false reports received and test tips to the system.

Now, after the one-year anniversary, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office confirms the number of credible tips has surpassed 30,000.

"Students being able to report anonymously actually takes that fear factor out of the equation. They can report without specifically going to somebody, having someone see you go to the office and go to a teacher, that removes that anxiety over going forward."

Kline warns North Carolina parents will likely be surprised, if not overwhelmed, by the sheer number of tips submitted to the anonymous reporting system--and how school violence is hardly the only subject.

According to Safe2Say's first annual report, threats against school only accounted for roughly 2.5 percent of all credible tips.

Instead, the top categories for tips included bullying/cyber Bullying, cutting/self-harm, suicide/suicide ideation, depression/anxiety and drug use/possession.

"We have had reports of sexual abuse in a home, physical abuse in a home, homelessness, terrible living conditions that we've been able to intervene with students on and get help and resources they need," Kline said. "You can submit screenshots, emails, pretty much anything to us that we can review."

Edward Harry, chief of the Hazleton Area School District Police Department, said 60 percent of tips coming his way from the crisis center are related to mental health.

"The school shooting aspect that you hear about is not even a fraction of what's going to come in," Harry said of what North Carolina officials should expect. "We've been able to get a lot of students counseling and get them set up with mental health evaluations."

Early returns in NC highlight mental health issues

Chief Harry's warning to North Carolina has already proved prescient. In fact, during the I-Team's visit to the Miami crisis center, several counselors communicated with students about their concern for a friend's well-being.

One tip, from a school in western North Carolina, expressed worry about a classmate's eating habits. ABC11 is not naming the school because of privacy concerns.

"If we don't step in, especially with eating disorders, they could last forever," Adriana Alcala, the counselor answering the tip, said. "If this person has an eating disorder and she has friends that notice, especially at that age, it's easy for friends to start looking at their weight in a negative light. It's really important to tell that person this is important and you did a great job reporting this."

Another tipster from a different district, communicating with counselor Bijal Mehta, sent screen shots of social media posts that the tipster considered a threat to commit suicide.

"There is a large gap between mental health services and the people that need it," Mehta said.

The latest data available shows 1,131 tips from North Carolina schools -- 97 percent of them credible. According to counselors, most tips come in between noon and 9 p.m., and in particular during lunch and after school when students get a chance to check their phones.

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Fulfilling the Sandy Hook Promise

Mark Barden still lives in Newtown, Connecticut, but he frequently travels across the country promoting Sandy Hook Promise and the Anonymous Reporting System.

Though North Carolina and Pennsylvania are the only two states to deploy Say Something statewide, 102 individual districts from 23 states are connected to the crisis center in Miami.

The nondescript office in the nondescript building still has plenty of open space, and Barden said that's also on purpose: there's always room for growth.

"North Carolina can be a shining beacon to the rest of the states," Barden said. "Look at what we can do here."

Download the Say Something Anonymous Reporting app for Apple or Android.