Speaking Out


Technology allows students to report high-profile threats without fear of repercussion

Getting students to come forward with information about crimes, threats, and bullying has always been a challenge for Tim Hartfield, chief of police for the Petal School District Police Department in Petal, MS. That was, until the district's middle and high schools implemented an online reporting system that students can use to report their concerns in an anonymous fashion.

"We're finding stuff out now," said Hartfield, who has worked for the school system for 14 years. "Instead of begging for information, it's coming to us. All we have to do is open up an e-mail to find out exactly what's going on in the classrooms, on campus and off campus." And when a serious situation arises, school administrators can access the reporters' identity--a situation that's only arisen once in the last year in Hartfield's district.

Using a system known as "Talk About It" from Oxford, MS-based AnComm that costs just under $3,000 a year to run, the Petal School District has found a way to head off problems that--at some point--could turn into incidents like those that took place in Columbine and Virginia Tech. Whether it's a bullying incident, a concealed weapon in a locker, or an outright threat against a student or faculty member, the concerns are entered in an online form and then routed to the appropriate person for further investigation.

"We get reports on everything from bullying to smoking to depression to possession of a weapon [the latter of which was later found to be an unintentional mistake on the part of the knife-carrying student]," said Hartfield. "Anything you can imagine, we have dealt with it." He said implementing and using the system was easy but points out that inputting the new student roster every year and registering each one so that they can use the system, is time-consuming. "Other than that," said Hartfield, "it has all been pretty effortless."

Putting Tech To Work
Media attention given to both common and high-profile school violence has upped the need for improved reporting systems that students can use without being accused of tattle-taling and effectively putting themselves in even more danger. And while many schools rely on tools like security cameras and metal detectors to keep crime incidences at a minimum, the more common threats like bullying, fighting, stealing, and threatening continue to plague thousands of students every day across the country.

So rather than throwing cash and personnel at unlikely problems that happen to be in the papers at the time, schools are turning to technology to help cut some of the problems off at the pass. To assist, companies like AnComm and SchoolSpan of Warwick RI, have developed online, anonymous reporting tools that administrators set up, and students use, to communicate their concerns over actual and potential crimes and events.

Carter Myers, president at AnComm, said the time has come for school districts to allow students to have their voices be heard without having to be penalized for "ratting out" their friends and/or enemies. "There's a lot more attention given to this issue, based on the reports we see in the media, and statistics show that the schoolhouse is a lot different than it used to be," said Myers. "The question is, how do you get more information from students? You have to overcome the stigma of being a rat or a snitch and put it in a format that they're going to use."

For SchoolSpan, that means giving students an online portal through which they can "snitch" without being identified. The system is offered free of charge to districts, according to Elliott Levine, vice president for strategic planning, and requires an anonymous password that's assigned by the school. The reports are then sent to select school officials via e-mail and addressed and logged accordingly.

AnComm's system works in a similar fashion and comprises a dedicated website that students access with their own unique user ID and password. The default option is "anonymous," but users can also opt to share their identities. A pull-down menu allows them to choose from a basic list of threats (bullying, drugs, self-injury, and so forth), and also includes customized options. A school located in an area where gangs are prevalent, for example, would list "gang activity" as one of its reporting options.

Faculty members can "request identification" when necessary, such as when a suicide attempt appears to be imminent. Myers said that just last week his firm intervened in such an attempt and last year played a role in thwarting seven possible suicides, as well as various weapons and drug complaints. "They truly are a preventative mechanism," said Myers, of the online reporting tools available to schools today.

More To Come
Abusing the systems isn't an option, according to both Levine and Myers, both of whom stated that the online reporting systems make it very clear that any fraudulent reporting is prosecutable to the fullest extent of the law. A statement to that effect is included on the school's reporting websites as a way to keep students from filing false claims of violence and/or criminal activity.

In today's age of mobile technology, Myers said the next revolution in anonymous reporting will likely be handled via text messaging--a feature that his firm plans to roll out in the near future. "We see it as a good way to stay up with the kids in terms of technology and access to information."

While online reporting may sound like a complicated step for a school district that's just getting up to speed with technology, Levine said the good news is that "it doesn't have to be technically sophisticated to work." A simple interface through a website that's routed to the appropriate faculty members, administrators, and/or law enforcement can go a long way in heading off crimes and other issues before they become the stuff that makes the front page of the local newspaper.

"If kids have a vehicle to stop something like that from happening without getting themselves in trouble with their peers, many times they'll take advantage of it," said Levine. "The idea is to give them a way to do that because the more that it's out in the open, the better you'll be able to handle it."

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About the author: Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].