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Colorado’s trailblazing Safe2Tell system needs significant upgrades, lawmakers say

Police respond to suicidal teens instead of counselors under the current system, which is among the reasons leaders are looking to Utah for ideas on how to improve.

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Two decades ago, in the wake of the Columbine school shooting, Colorado officials created the Safe2Tell anonymous tip line to help prevent more school massacres. 

The system set a standard for prevention efforts, one replicated across the nation. But now, lawmakers and mental health experts think Colorado’s system needs a significant upgrade to address an array of crises. 

MORE: If Colorado wants to stop the next school shooting, the state needs to get on the same page, lawmakers say

The new national model is the state’s neighbor to the west, Utah. Three years ago, the state created a single statewide crisis center to answer calls related to potential threats in schools and respond to mental health incidents that come in through a mobile application known as SafeUT.

The Utah program primarily targets students who can place a call or send a text message through the app to a licensed counselor, or submit a confidential tip about concerns regarding bullying or threats of violence. 

In Colorado, the Safe2Tell threat-reporting tool and the Colorado Crisis Services line are separate entities not available in one place and operated with different missions by two state agencies.

State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, speaks to a crowd before Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1039 and House Bill 1129 into law on the west steps of the Colorado Capitol on Friday, May 31, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, the chairwoman of the state’s school safety committee, wants to connect the two tools and more closely match Utah’s system. “They were two completely separate groups asking for separate things,” she said, referring to Safe2Tell and the crisis line. “And now is the time that, in some way, shape or form, for these to be connected.”

The committee, formed after the deadly STEM School shooting in May, is expected to address the issue on Tuesday, when it meets for the second time. “I’m hoping we can have some conversation about what is the next iteration of this program,” said Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City. She believes Colorado needs to “invest some money to catch up with what other states have done with our tool.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Phil Weiser, who oversees the Safe2Tell, refused to discuss the program or answer questions from The Colorado Sun. Gov. Jared Polis’ administration, which oversees the crisis line through the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health, acknowledged the gap between the state’s current systems and said a task force is looking at how to create a more seamless experience for clients.

“I think we are really trying to do a no-wrong-door approach and offer a set of services that all of our programs are aware of so we can find the right response based on their needs,” said Cristen Bates, policy director for the state Office of Behavioral Health.

How the Utah model for crisis response works

In Utah, the crisis calls and text messages routed through the SafeUT app all arrive at a nerve center operated by the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute in Salt Lake City. More than 20 licensed clinicians work during the day — and at least three on the overnight shift — in a large office with an open floor plan to allow better collaboration. 

All the anonymous calls and messages are answered within two minutes or less through a custom-built dashboard that allows the hub to relay information to the proper resources, whether a school, law enforcement, a counselor, mobile mental health team or some combination. 

MORE: No Colorado school districts meet federal safety standards for behavioral health staffing, investigation shows

The Utah program was highlighted earlier this month at the National Conference of State Legislatures summit in Tennessee during a session attended by the four Democrats on Colorado’s school safety committee. 

Amber J. Montero, the SafeUT supervisor and a licensed clinical social worker, described the program’s innovations succinctly: It’s one-tap access to crisis services provided by master’s level licensed clinicians. 

The state started to study how to address school violence and a high suicide rate, particularly for children 10 to 17 years old, back in 2014 by looking at Colorado’s Safe2Tell program. But in an interview, Montero said the task force soon “determined in our state we needed more than that.”

“We need more of the mental health support in our state and the ability for people to reach out and get special mental health support outside of just submitting tips,” she said.

The SafeUT app debuted in 2016 in K-12 schools and expanded to colleges and universities two years later. In the 2018-19 school year, 735,000 students had access to the app, and it’s available to everyone for download. The text message chat is most popular among students, Montero said.

“I think even calling on the phone is too vulnerable for a lot of people because we can hear their voice,” she said. “So the ability to take out some of that vulnerability really encourages people to talk freely and openly about what’s happening in their lives.”

The crisis line conducted about 21,000 chats and received 12,221 tips in the last school year. About 250 unique potential school threats, which included reports of explosives, guns and planned attacks, were immediately referred to law enforcement, according to an annual report.

So far, anecdotal feedback suggests the program is leading to a reduction in suicide rates and saving lives. “We hear anecdotally the successes every single day,” Montero said. “We hear pretty regularly, ‘You saved my life.’”

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

A drive to improve Colorado’s threat prevention system 

Safe2Tell came together as a response to Columbine and went live in 2004. The Colorado Crisis line debuted in 2014 as a response to the Aurora theater shooting.

A month or so ago, the gap in Colorado’s two systems became clear to Sarah Davidon, the research director at Mental Health Colorado. She was talking to a group of students at a forum who told her they aren’t sure which to call — Safe2Tell or the Colorado Crisis Services. And some students are aware of one program but not the other.

One example she recalled involved a girl who called Safe2Tell — which isn’t answered by a trained counselor — about a mental health issue only to see the police respond to her house. “She needed a crisis line,” Davidon said.

In the school year concluding July 31, Safe2Tell reported receiving about 19,000 tips, a 28% increase from the prior year. 

Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners, the contractor that operates the state’s hotline, responded to 173,547 calls, chats or texts in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to the latest state figures.

“It’s become a bit confusing,” Davidon said. “We want a more streamlined process so there is no wrong door. Because it seems to make sense that the circumstances are different from a violent threat and a suicidal or depression situation. They both need immediate attention, but they are different.”

Mental Health Colorado plans to lobby lawmakers to create a streamlined process similar to the Utah system, where the two help lines are connected. “When you are in a crisis, the last thing you are able to do is figure out which is the right number to call,” she said.

Rising Sun