In an era where mass shootings have become more commonplace, school districts across South Carolina are beginning to implement cellphone apps that allow students to anonymously submit tips to report school threats, vandalism, bullying, drug usage, suicide attempts or any other potentially dangerous activity they observe.
The reasoning is simple. Advocates say that by providing students with the ability to anonymously report things with the devices at their fingertips, tragedies can be prevented and lives saved.
The challenge is creating a culture and environment where students feel comfortable enough to speak up.
Dozens of school districts in the Palmetto State have partnered with school safety-oriented tech companies to offer more options for students to report concerning behavior.
Many of these districts have partnered with STOPit Solutions. The New Jersey-based company has implemented its anonymous reporting services in 29 school districts in South Carolina, serving roughly 330 schools and about 184,000 students, according to company President Parkhill Mays.
Most of those districts have set up STOPit services within the past six months for free, thanks to a partnership with the S.C. School Boards Insurance Trust.
While many districts have offered some sort of hotline for students to report things for many years, "the big problem they bring about in education is they’re not anonymous," Mays said, since many of them have some form of caller ID.
“There’s something about typing into a faceless, nameless keyboard that’s very comfortable for a student, compared to making an appointment and meeting with an adult or calling a phone number,” Mays said.
In South Carolina, STOPit has received tips on more than 2,000 actionable incidents over the past six months. Those numbers are going up rapidly, Mays said.
“It only takes one to make a life-saving difference,” he said.
Working from the inside out
In Charleston County, the STOPit app was implemented at Haut Gap Middle School after authorities confiscated a gun and more than a dozen rounds of ammunition that a 13-year-old student brought on campus.
A teacher was tipped off that the student had brought a firearm to school in a backpack after receiving a handwritten note from another student. The student who submitted the note alleged the other student “said he was going to shoot us,” according to an incident report.
Now, students can submit tips through STOPit three different ways: via the mobile application, a desktop website or a 24/7 hotline, said Director of Security and Emergency Management Michael Reidenbach.
“Schools are secured from the outside in, but we have to think about what we have to do to keep students safe from the inside out,” said Haut Gap parent Kelly Loyd.
Since the new reporting system was initially rolled out in August, the district has received 50 or so substantive tips. All schools have access to the call-in hotline, Reidenbach said, but only Burke High, Cario Middle, Drayton Hall Elementary, Haut Gap Middle, Morningside Middle and Northwoods Middle have fully implemented the mobile app and desktop site.
Reidenbach said that he’s seen the number of tips the district receives increase after the mobile app platform was launched.
About half of the tips have been related to some sort of form of harassment or bullying, Reidenbach said. The district has also received tips on vandalism, tobacco usage and threats of physical harm.
The district is evaluating plans to further expand those components into more schools.
Fostering social responsibility
Although these types of mobile safety platforms are becoming more common for districts across the country, it can be a challenge for students to feel completely comfortable using them.
"You often hear the term 'snitching' in a negative way to talk about students who bring forward information, and we certainly need to combat against that idea," Reidenbach said.
Launching the app has provided the district with opportunities to have these kinds of conversations with students and families, he said.
"It is not designed to be a complete replacement though for the relationships that we want to establish directly with students that they feel comfortable bringing forward information in person to us," he said.
Now that public schools across the country are closed due to the spread of the new coronavirus, students are spending more time on their phones and less time doing schoolwork, providing them with more opportunities and free time for cyberbullying and harassment.
“Cyberbullying, social media, that's not going to stop, and we do expect to see an increase in those types of reports,” said Teresa Reuter, STOPit’s senior vice president of customer success.
But these kinds of safety apps can also be used to send broadcast messages and push alerts to students at home to keep them updated with new information.
Even though they're not at school, they can still use the app to report issues, like if they're having problems at home or aren't getting enough to eat while schools are closed.
"We know that sometimes home is not the safest place for our students, school actually is. So this is a way for them to reach out to say, 'I am in an unsafe environment, while I'm being forced to self isolate,' " Reuter said.
Challenges to implementation
The S.C. Department of Education doesn’t track how many of the state’s 80 or so school districts have access to these types of anonymous tip applications, said spokesman Ryan Brown.
Some states, like Colorado, offer statewide support for school districts. Colorado’s anonymous reporting system, Safe2Tell, originated as a nonprofit organization founded in the wake of the deadly Columbine school shooting in 1999.
“It helps our students feel empowered because their anonymity is protected by state law,” said Safe2Tell Director Essi Ellis.
Many different school safety technology vendors have approached state officials in South Carolina offering to help implement a similar statewide system, Brown said, but it has never been considered a viable option.
“You would essentially have to establish a full-time staff of multiple people within an agency, probably an agency like (the State Law Enforcement Division), to monitor that and move those reports down to the local level. It would cost a lot of money and be a logistical nightmare,” Brown said.
Some school districts, like Berkeley County, are able to build their own anonymous reporting mobile apps. The anonymous app was launched at the start of the 2018 school year after the district's IT department tweaked some existing online software.
“We need something for those situations where somebody needs to quietly and inconspicuously send a tip," said spokesman Brian Troutman. "If you're in a situation with a group of people that seems uneasy and threatening, the last thing you want is to make an obvious phone call for help.”
Some law enforcement agencies have also stepped up to the plate.
The Mount Pleasant Police Department’s Safe Campus app got an update in 2018 allowing students to anonymously tip off officers about suspicious behavior or potentially dangerous situations.
Loyd, the Haut Gap parent, said she's relieved that the app/website has been implemented at her children's school but that more work needs to be done.
Once students can return to class, she plans to continue advocating for more school safety measures, such as increased training for parents and students and random handheld metal detector sweeps.
"We cannot let this ... be a distant memory, because something else is going to happen again," she said. "Maybe not at Haut Gap, but at someplace else, and so that's why I'll keep pushing for it."