QUAKERTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Educators across the region agree schools need to be a safer place to learn.
In January, Pennsylvania added another tool to help safeguard students.
Pennsylvania became the first state to mandate that all schools — public and private — activate the Safe2Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, a tipline developed by Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by several parents whose children who were killed in the 2012 school shooting. Safe2Say is part of Act 44, a multi-faceted school security and safety law passed by state legislators last spring after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Over the next few weeks, schools will train staff and students on how to report potential threats of violence, self-harm and other problems through an anonymous app, website, or 24/7 crisis hotline.
While districts embrace a measure to identify threats, some area educators worry that the state mandate doesn't provide the needed follow-up support that an influx of anonymous tips might require.
"It has the potential to be an important support system to identity mental health and safety issues that need to come forward and be known," said Quakertown Community Superintendent William Harner. "But once you identify a problem, you have to have a solution. You are identifying a mental health issue, but where are the funds to support those identified as having a genuine problem through this hotline?"
Under the Safe2Say system, which started to roll out Jan. 14 but has yet to be implemented by many schools and school districts, tips go to a call center operated by the Attorney General's Office, which prioritizes and passes them on to schools, school districts or local 911 centers, depending on the nature of the call.
Joe Grace, spokesman for Attorney General Josh Shapiro, said no state money will flow to districts for the program, but added that Safe2Say has a web site with materials for training that he is referring districts to access. He said the cost for operating Safe2Say for its initial year was proposed at $1.1 million.
"The Legislature appropriated half of that, or $550,000, due to the program launch date of mid-January 2019 — which marks the half-way point of the state's fiscal year," he said.
In its first week, the statewide reporting system received 615 tips from across Pennsylvania. Crisis center analysts evaluated them and sent several hundred to local law enforcement and school officials to follow up with students, according to statement from the attorney general's office.
Though Sandy Hook Promise has trained 3.5 million students and teachers in 50 states in ways to detect and report signs of potential violence, Pennsylvania is the first state to mandate the program for all of its schools.
Shortly after it was activated, Shapiro announced that "it's working." He said an anonymous tip through the Safe2Say system alerted police to a potential threat involving a middle school student in Hazelton. Shapiro said that the anonymous caller had reported that a 14 year old allegedly made a threat against the school through the social media site SnapChat.
Tips into Bucks County schools are beginning to trickle in. So far, Central Bucks administrators received six tips, none of which were life-threatening and are being investigated by staff. "Tips will help us stay ahead of situations that come our way," said Central Bucks Superintendent John Kopicki.
The program isn't costing the district extra money, he said.
"It does cost us time as a district; I feel it's time well spent," he said. "If you save one child's life, the tip line is well worth it."
Pennsbury School District Pupil Services Director Elizabeth Aldridge agreed. The district will officially activate its Safe2Say program Feb. 11, when all students will have been oriented on its use.
She said she believes Pennsbury already has created an environment where students are comfortable reporting possible threats or suspicious behavior to teachers and other adults, but that Safe2Say is another welcome method for anonymously reporting such threats.
"The tips could be about various things, like a student being bullied, someone threatening to harm themselves or someone possibly threatening harm to a school," Aldridge said. She is one of six Pennsbury representatives authorized to receive the tips, at least one of which must be available 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. The program requires at least a five-member administrative team from each district with the ability to respond around the clock, year-round.
Neshaminy Assistant to the Superintendent and Director of Administration Paul Meehan said many district staffers have already received training on Safe2Say and that students will be oriented in March.
"We always want our students to feel they can come to any adult they have a relationship with and report something they are uncomfortable with," he said. "Safe2Say will be just another vehicle for our students to use and it will encourage recognition of signs and signals of at-risk behaviors, especially through social media. It will encourage students to take signs and signals seriously, acting quickly to get help by talking to a trusted adult at school or using the tip line."
David Bolton, superintendent of Pennridge School District, said building teams already have been trained to receive tips. So far, Pennridge hasn't received tips through the program.
"The district is responsible for any costs that we choose to incur to monitor this system," said Bolton, adding that monitoring the tips outside the normal school day may require staffing costs.
Quakertown's Harner and Centennial School District Superintendent David Baugh both expressed concerns that individuals could misuse the program to bully or harass others by making knowingly false reports. Quakertown so far has received three tips, all of which stemmed from false allegations.
Baugh is aware of reports of students and teachers getting harassed by anonymous pranksters. He said the program does allow for a legal avenue to disclose them, but added, "it's just another strain on an already under-resourced local system."
Baugh said he wasn't calling the program's intention into question, but said the implementation came as a "mandate" from state officials who didn't consider input from districts before its launch. He was among a group of administrators from across the state that requested the program be delayed until schools are trained and ready to incorporate a new alert system with tip lines and support systems that already are in place.
"This isn't something new; it's another layer of unfunded mandates, and now we are responsible 365 days a year, 24 hours a day to answer a phone, and respond to an anonymous tipster — and we are hearing that the number of false reports is much higher than the attorney general expected it to be."
Right now, Centennial works with its staff and local law enforcement to respond to reports of threats or self-harm. It also has a computer-monitoring system that flags conversations or pictures and alerts school officials. "This was an integral part of our culture prior to the attorney general getting involved," Baugh said.
Harner said, "Safe2Say is a start, but it needs to be financially resourced with money specifically targeted to this issue."
Baugh said he's "100 percent behind safe schools. We just wish they would have talked with people involved before they rolled it out. If you are going to legislate the way to safety, let's do meaningful gun reform or invest in meaningful mental health programs to find out why kids think killing themselves or shooting up schools is a good idea."
How to report a threat
The Safe2Say tip line can be reached by calling 844-723-2729 (Pennsylvania), 844-572-9669 (national), visiting the program's website at saysomething.net, or downloading the Safe2Say phone app at the Google Play or Apple iTunes store.
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com