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Use of Safe2Tell, created in response to Columbine, is growing as front line tool in school safety

While the anonymous tip program has come into its own as part of the AG’s office, it also faces a statistically small but troubling problem -- kids who use it to target other kids

Essi Ellis, the new director of Colorado's Safe2Tell program, strolls the halls of the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center, where the program is run out of the state attorney general's office. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Susan Payne remembers the year, 2010, when the Safe2Tell platform for tips on potentially harmful school behavior had just introduced a texting option that yielded only about 100 reports. One of them involved some boys, online gamers, who were winding up their video competition and signing off when something happened that caused them to sound an alarm.

“I’ve got to go study,” posted one. “Will you be on here tomorrow night?”

“I’ve got a math test,” a second kid added.

“If I’m not on here tomorrow night,” said another, “I’ll be dead.”

That caught the other boys’ attention. But what moved them to text the tip line was what he said when they asked him what he meant: “You’ll hear about a massacre at my school tomorrow. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll kill myself or have the police kill me.”

Payne, whose career has tracked the evolution of Safe2Tell as an anonymous source of information potentially critical to school safety, says that while the report came from Colorado, authorities here quickly alerted law enforcement in Biloxi, Mississippi — where the suicidal online gamer lived. Police responded to the boy’s home in the middle of the night to investigate.

Though he claimed he had no intention of following through on the threat, he told officers he’d been bullied and wanted to kill himself. They took three shotguns, five rifles and two pistols from his home in what Payne calls, “an intervention everybody agreed had to happen.”

“There’s not even jurisdictional boundaries any more with the way young people communicate through online gaming or social media today,” adds Payne, who recently stepped away from Safe2Tell to broaden her school safety efforts. “We really have to be focused on how we are innovative in approaching things in a unique way moving forward, so we can handle whatever comes our way.”

From telephone tip line to text, computer and mobile app, from struggling nonprofit to state-funded program integrated into the attorney general’s office in 2014, Safe2Tell has played an increasingly prominent role in the school-safety toolbox.

Fueling the momentum: heightened awareness of students in crisis, the ever-present possibility of school violence plus technological and procedural advances in ways to communicate threats. Safe2Tell reports have spiked remarkably — particularly in the past two years.

From the 2015-16 data year, which runs Aug. 1 through the end of July, to 2016-17, reports increased by 58%. And then they grew by another 75% the following year.

Payne suspects that the massive leap in use has a lot to do with the 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School that killed student Claire Davis. The school safety conversation, and how to identify threats, was at the forefront in the media.

“There was an increased investment of having the conversation with young people and engaging them and educating them what to watch and listen for, with a focus on behaviors both online and in person,” she says.

Reports for 2018-19 are on a pace to surpass last year’s 16,000, though probably not to the degree previously seen.

Former director of Safe2Tell Susan Payne. (Courtesy of Susan Payne)

But Safe2Tell’s 2018 annual report also highlighted an unintended consequence of such a successful program cloaked in anonymity — false reports. For statistical purposes, the program teases out instances of misuse into three categories: pranks, errant tips that have no connection to school safety and false tips, which it defines as reporting false information to “harm, injure or bully.”

The tips that purposely target another individual make up a little over 3% of the annual total, but the raw number — 528 reports — represents a cause for concern that can be difficult, though not impossible, to address.

Reflecting shifts in technology, most of the tips in the past two years arrived via the mobile app. All but 1,008 of last year’s tips — about 94% — identified unique single incidents. But that other 6% indicated multiple tips on incidents, a factor that suggests the ability to anonymously report potentially dangerous or harmful activity has gained traction among students.

John McDonald, who directs the Department of School Safety for Jeffco Public Schools and also served on the Safe2Tell board in its nonprofit days, says the program has become ingrained in school climate and culture and become a “foundational aspect of school safety around the state.”

“We asked students to trust us,” he says. “When they report a student in crisis, and later see that student has gotten help, the kids realize they’re not the bad guy, they’re not the snitch. There’s a trust factor that builds into every report. It becomes a part of the culture — whatever the threat is.”

The numbers show that suicide prevention has become top-of-mind when it comes to the types of reports that filter into the Colorado State Patrol Communications Branch, which monitors tips around the clock and, when needed, forwards information — immediately, in life-threatening situations — to the appropriate individuals or agencies. That has been the case since 2012-13.

And last school year, suicide threats accounted for more than 17 percent of the total tips. On 17 occasions, individuals called Safe2Tell to say that they were in crisis. On average, the response time to those individuals was 51 minutes.

Although tips of planned school attacks, the impetus for Safe2Tell, generally fall somewhere down the list, last February they lurched to the top, with nearly 300 reports. Those came in the immediate wake of the Feb. 14 Parkland school shooting, and continued to a slightly lesser extent in March with 134 tips.

Payne points out that tips to Colorado’s Safe2Tell don’t always reference a potential problem in Colorado. Social media tends to blur jurisdictional lines.

“Anyone with anything of concern on their radar, it becomes fear-based, and does overload law enforcement and school officials,” she says. “It’s also something you see around anniversary dates, when there’s more media. People are being vigilant community-wide. But then it ripples down. The same thing applies to remembrance, and Columbine is obviously one of those dates of great concern. People become obsessed with that date in history for a variety of reasons.”

The memory of that Colorado tip nine years ago that quelled a threat in Mississippi also served notice to Payne that the program needed an app — the demands already were surpassing the ability of texting alone to deal with the increasingly complex nature of tips that now could include photos, videos and other additional information.

“Every year, there’s a new group of 6th graders,” she says. “And every year, they get smartphones at a younger age. We have to change age appropriate levels of how we implement strategies.”

Clyde Casados, a patrol officer with the Denver Public Schools Department of Safety, talks to a dispatcher during his swing shift on April 4, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. He estimates that as many as 20 percent of his calls from Safe2Tell turn out to be pranks played to embarrass or harass other students. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Chris Black and his wife were out of town, with a family friend staying at their Douglas County home with their kids, when the cops came calling in connection with a tip about their 12-year-old daughter.

“The report from Safe2Tell said that she was doing something on the bus that she wasn’t doing,” Black says. “They didn’t say what she supposedly had, but something she was not supposed to, and they needed to search her belongings — in the name of safety.”

The adult staying with the kids opened the backpack, but nothing suspicious was found. The next day at school, Black says, an administrator again searched his daughter’s backpack and found nothing inappropriate. The girl claims she has no idea who might have phoned in a bogus “tip,” but her parents suspect it may have been the result of conflict with another student earlier in the year.

But Black acknowledges it could have been anything.

“There doesn’t have to be a motive, because there is zero recourse against them,” he says of the fake tipster.

Black and his wife, Michelle, say that since the episode with their daughter, they’ve heard about other families whose children have had similar problems — some who have been subjected to repeated unnecessary visits from law enforcement as a means of harassment.

Black says he reached out to Safe2Tell, which told him they wanted to help. That was on Jan. 28. Since then, he’s heard nothing.

“They said they were interested in investigating, and that was it,” he says. “I have little faith in their ability to follow through on anything they say at this point. Kids aren’t stupid, they know it’s anonymous, so they say whatever they want.”

Although he calls this misuse “a milder form of swatting,” referring to the type of harassment in which someone falsely sends police or emergency personnel to an individual’s home, Black applauds the program’s intent.

“The idea behind it is great,” he says. “The problem with it is it does allow for anonymity. Unless they’re willing to go in-depth to go after somebody, there’s not a whole lot that can be done.”

McDonald, the Jeffco security expert who has worked extensively with Safe2Tell, says that despite anonymity, sometimes school officials can — and have — tracked down the perpetrator simply by questioning the victim and other students. In a particularly egregious case, he notes, a student in Greeley who reported a fake bomb threat was identified and charged.

“It’s not a systemic problem, but you see pockets of it,” McDonald says, “and it’s up to school administrators to address it. In a lot of cases we’re able to identify who made the false tip. But you do have to address it, or you’ve established a new norm. It can be a struggle, a frustration.”

According to the program’s statistics, the 528 false tips — ones it defines as designed to harm or bully another student — last year represent 3.3% of the total. But less malicious tips, defined as  pranks and misuse, bring the total closer to 7%.

It can be nearly as frustrating to law enforcement and school officials as it is to the victims. McDonald explains that if you look at the effort involved in responding to a tip, you see how much wasted time is involved. One officer who works security for Denver Public Schools estimates that up to 20 percent of the Safe2Tell calls he takes are fake.

McDonald contends that as the world changes, so do programs. And while more education on the use of a reporting program like Safe2Tell will help limit misuse, he also thinks it’s important to demonstrate that behavior that targets other kids won’t be tolerated.

“We have to stand up and say that’s not OK,” McDonald says. “Most of the time, through investigation, you can figure (who reported the false tip). But I think should be a greater consequence when you catch those misusing.”

When Essi Ellis worked for 11 years as director of emergency management and preparedness for the University of Colorado’s Denver and Anschutz campuses, it wasn’t unusual for her to encounter students with the same question: Can I still use Safe2Tell here?

“Students are coming from a K-12 environment where they learned about it,” she says in her still-unpacked new office in the Colorado attorney general’s office. “It’s a tool students want to bring with them.”

And while Safe2Tell, which she now inherits from Payne, is designed as a K-12 tool, she allows that information-sharing expansion with colleges and beyond “is part of our strategic plans.” But she prefaces any talk about the future with a nod to what her predecessors have accomplished.

Essi Ellis, the new director of Colorado’s Safe2Tell tip program, stands outside the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I inherited a visionary program,” she says. “The culture now embraces Safe2Tell. It’s made its mark in Colorado. And anonymity provides that comfort level if (students) want to break the code of silence.

“I wanted to come make a difference,” she adds. “I knew with my background the sky’s the limit.”

Adding a post-secondary element might be a logical place to start.Jeffco’s McDonald suspects that adding post-secondary institutions to the program “would not be a big lift” for the AG’s office, and it’s something that would substitute early intervention for post-crisis recovery.

“I think it has a real future,” McDonald says. “The tips are going to be different. My sense, having done lot of work with colleges in security issues, is that there would be more tips on binge drinking, sexual assault, more tips on dating violence. There’s no pathway in most colleges for an anonymous reporting hotline that works.”

On a national level, he sees the convergence of two trends — a raging gun debate nationally and an increase in “attack behavior” by individuals. It’s the second that really concerns him, and reinforces his belief that Safe2Tell, and other programs like it across the country, could play an even bigger role in school safety.

“They’re going to find whatever weapon suits them at that moment in time,” he says of those disposed to violence. “But we’re seeing an increase in students, people around the country, broadcasting their intentions.”

A study several years ago showed that 81% of shooters broadcast what they’re going to do prior to an attack. And that was before the advent of social media. These days, that number would likely be higher than 90%. That’s where reporting programs come in.

He points to 169 tips that came in, shortly after Parkland, about a school attack mentioned by two kids on social media.

“These are kids saying, ‘No more,’” McDonald says. “Safe2Tell is about being a good citizen, a good friend, calling in to protect your school and your environment. That’s maybe one of the best outcomes: Teaching a generation to be involved and not be afraid to stand up when something is wrong.”

Payne, who now works with the non-profit Safe and Sound Schools, founded by parents who lost children in the Sandy Hook shootings, notes that Safe2Tell and other programs like it must constantly change to adapt to evolving realities of technology and modern life. Still, it’s not just the platform, but the eyes and ears that use it, that make the difference.

“I do think we are ahead of most states in our work,” Payne says. “But we continue to look where there is room for improvement. You can never get complacent because you have things in place. The human detector is the best detector.”


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