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Someone’s Listening

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School Phone
Illustration by Brent Holmes

Making it easier for students to report bullying and other problems in a post-Parkland world

Today’s teenagers were mere toddlers, if they were yet born at all, when the post-9/11 warning If you see something, say something became a nationally recognized motto. This means Nevada’s children have known this advice their whole lives. But Snitches get stitches is another common phrase — particularly among bullies — and saying what you’ve seen isn’t always so easy.

The people at the Nevada Department of Education (NDE) realize this, which is why, in support of Nevada’s anti-bullying laws, they spent a full year seeking an effective communication model to implement here. They found one in Safe2Tell Colorado, an anonymous reporting platform created in response to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, when investigations confirmed that several students knew about the shooters’ plans, but none spoke up.

Since its 2004 implementation, according to Colorado’s Safe2Tell.org, 30,253 tips have been received. Most commonly reported, in the 2016-2017 school year, were suicide threats, bullying, drugs, cutting, and depression, in that order. But there’s a long list of lesser-reported concerns, like child abuse, sexting, anger issues, dating violence, and vandalism. Also that year, officials responded to 294 tips concerning planned school attacks, possibly thwarting tragedies and saving lives. 

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Now, NDE is rolling out its own safe-to-tell program, modeled after Colorado’s. SafeVoice is a 24/7/365 anonymous tip line that will be available to students, parents, and the community just in time for the 2018-2019 school year. And, likely, just in time to save lives, considering Nevada’s suicide rates have spiked, again; cyber-bullying is at an all-time high, in an age when sharing nude pictures has become as prevalent in teen culture as drugs and alcohol; and school shootings are happening at a rate of 1.4 per week in America.

“There are three mechanisms for reporting,” explains Kenji Okuma, a sergeant with Nevada Department of Public Safety, and the operations and communications manager of SafeVoice. The first is with a phone call to the Safe Voice Communications Center; the second is through the website; and the third, and most popular among kids (in Colorado), is a SafeVoice app that enables students to anonymously live chat with SafeVoice staffers. The platform also allows for receiving uploaded photos and videos, and app information will be handily available on the back of student I.D. cards. (Because the program isn’t fully running yet, SafeVoice isn’t widely releasing the phone number, web address, or app info to the public.)

Already, half the students in Nevada have access to SafeVoice, the first phase of the program having rolled out in January. As of early April, 1,650 anonymous tips had been received — an average of about 18 a day.

“We were surprised by the amount of tips that were coming in,” Okuma admits, and he explains that the program plans to expand its personnel and resources for the rollout of the second phase, in August, when it stands to reason incoming calls could double. 

Thus far, bullying has been the number one concern, according to Christy McGill, director of the NDE’s Office for a Safe and Respectful Learning Environment (OSRLE), followed by suicide threats, then school safety issues, which include threats of attack.

“Across the board, we see the same types of tips coming in from elementary school all the way up to high school,” Okuma says. “It’s funny because we get tips where kids call in (because) they’re upset with a teacher. They give them too much homework or they’re just not nice. At the same time, we get tips, at a very young age, where kids are talking about wanting to hurt themselves or are planning to kill themselves.” 

Suicidal ideation in younger kids — as young as 9 and 10 — has become a real problem, according to Dr. Debora Barney, a psychiatrist with the Center for Emotional Health who specializes in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry. While she can’t say definitively what’s causing this, she believes bullying, depression, and low self-esteem from underperforming in school are all factors.

“I think children, when they’ve been bullied, tend to isolate,” Barney explains. “Once they start isolating and internalizing, it escalates to anxiety and depression, and the more alone they are the less they know how to cope. That’s when things continue to deteriorate and lead to suicidal thoughts.”

A primary concern Barney had when she learned of SafeVoice was that the kids’ reports were received as seriously as they are delivered. “If they report, and they don’t see any action, where does that leave them?” she asks.

SafeVoice response times are pretty much immediate — as in mere minutes. Then, each tip is analyzed to determine the appropriate organization to forward it to: law enforcement, perhaps, or three-person multidisciplinary teams at the relevant school, or behavioral-health professionals who will visit the school or home to assess a child’s danger and institute a safety plan. Depending on the issue, the tip might be forwarded to all of them.

SafeVoice will also follow up with a school if a tip report maintains open status for more than a few days, thus enforcing accountability. Each school also has a SafeVoice liaison to step in, if necessary. For tips alleging adult to child bullying, OSRLE has oversight responsibility.

“We wanted to make sure we did not have that gap here, in Nevada,” McGill says, referring to the February 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida. In that case, the shooter, who had a history of making threats, appears to have slipped through the cracks.

Even in its introductory phase, Okuma is impressed with the program’s success. Kids, too, are live-chatting their appreciation in response to being heard. “What it comes down to,” he says, “is a good communication platform like this, coupled with the diligence of our partners. That’s how we stop bad things from happening.”

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