After a student party marking the end of the school year a few weeks ago, a report came in to officials in Kennebunk’s Regional School Unit 21 about a video of two high schoolers who appeared to be drinking and repeating variations of a racial slur.

The video might have disappeared and never been brought to the attention of school administrators, but instead it was saved and reported through a new anonymous reporting system the district implemented in November.

The report led to an investigation and a decision by police to summons the owners of the house where the party took place. For school officials, the report also shed light on ongoing concerns about racist incidents in the district.

Say Something, an anonymous reporting system app, is being adopted by a number of Maine schools.

The case is just one example of how the anonymous reporting system, called Say Something, is starting to be used by school districts in Maine and elsewhere.

It also points to the growing popularity of such systems, as school districts and communities look to become more active in addressing concerns about school violence and student safety.

“These types of tip lines are becoming much more prominent and much more of a trend, particularly in recent years,” said Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, California, a nonprofit aimed at providing assistance in school violence prevention.

“Oftentimes individuals feel if they report they can be retaliated against, so having an anonymous option is very useful.”

But experts also caution that as anonymous reporting becomes a tool more schools rely on, there are still kinks to be worked out and best practices to follow. It can also be a lot of work.

“It’s not just, ‘Here’s a phone number, make a report,'” said Steven Driscoll, lead research specialist for the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center. “There has to be a lot of accountability, documentation and training.”

A GROWING TREND

Nationwide, anonymous reporting systems are nothing new, though they are gaining in popularity. Several states, including Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Wyoming, all have statewide anonymous reporting systems in place for schools.

Maine doesn’t have a statewide system for anonymous reporting, and the Department of Education doesn’t track how many schools use such tools or what types of systems might be in use in the state.

But Maine is among 23 states nationwide where schools have started to use the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System developed and run by the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise.

The home menu of the Say Something anonymous reporting system app.

The system, which was launched in the spring of 2018, is currently in 5,100 schools nationwide and provides students with a way to anonymously report safety concerns through a telephone tip line, app or website.

So far it has generated over 25,000 tips across the country, a majority of which have come from Pennsylvania, which is using Say Something to implement a statewide mandate that all districts have an anonymous reporting system in place.

In Maine, a total of 194 reports have been submitted to date among three school districts that rolled out the system at various points in the 2018-2019 school year.

The districts include Kennebunk-based RSU 21, which started using the system in November; Waterboro-based RSU 57, which started using it in January; and Waterville Public Schools, which rolled it out just before the end of the school year in June.

Winslow Public Schools also plans to launch the program in the fall.

“When our school administrators have concrete evidence and reports, they can better respond appropriately by speaking with students involved and providing support to parents,” RSU 21 acting Superintendent Phil Potenziano said in an email.

He said the program has benefited middle and high school students in the district by giving them an opportunity to disclose concerns at times and places where adults might not be present.

It’s also streamlined the district’s ability to respond to concerns that happen outside of school but might spill over into a student’s day on campus.

Recently, the program was used by a student in RSU 21 to report the Snapchat video taken at a party attended by Kennebunk High School students that featured two girls who appeared to be intoxicated.

One of the girls can be heard repeating different variations of a common racial slur. The video ends with the other girl laughing and saying, “We need more (expletive) shots.”

In the following days, the district issued a community letter saying the video raised concerns about hate speech and would be investigated. The outcome of the probe is still pending.

“I think it’s absolutely insensitive and appalling that the girls posted what they did … so obviously someone had to report it,” said the student, who reported the video anonymously and also sent it to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in an email. “And I wasn’t going to wait for someone else, so I stepped in.”

The student, who asked not to be identified because she feared retribution, said she would not have reported the video if not for the Say Something app. She said it worked well, but she would like to see administrators be more responsive to the tips that come in.

“I feel like our school doesn’t take the reports seriously unless it’s something like the racial incident,” the student said. “I feel like other reports, for example, say if another student saw a peer using drugs, the student reports it but all the peer gets is talked to and maybe a call home. It’s proactive, but not enough.”

Potenziano, however, said he feels the district is being proactive by implementing the U.S. Department of Justice’s SPIRIT program, which works to address racial tensions and violence, and by choosing restorative practices rather than punitive discipline.

“Like any other organization striving to improve, we are continually reassessing our systems, taking into account all feedback from our stakeholders,” he said. “I hope all students know they can reach out to me or any other administrator and their voices will be heard and acted upon.”

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The Say Something Anonymous Reporting System is run by the Newtown, Connecticut-based Sandy Hook Promise, which was founded in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that claimed the lives of 26 people, including 20 students.

The group took in about $13 million in grants and contributions in 2017, according to its most recent IRS Form 990, and is led by several people who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Last year, following another high-profile school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Sandy Hook Promise used an influx of funding to start the anonymous reporting program.

According to a recent report from the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, 78 percent of people who perpetrated mass attacks in the United States in 2018 exhibited behavior that caused concern to others.

Three of last year’s 27 mass attacks – defined as those harming at least three people – took place in schools.

“There are signs and signals often given off ahead of somebody wanting to hurt themselves or others, and when we researched that further we found there just weren’t programs out there addressing and educating folks on these signals,” said Tim Makris, managing director and co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise.

He said the group launched a sister program, Say Something, in 2014 to train schools and students on how to look for those signs and signals, before starting the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System last year.

“We knew we also needed another solution for folks who don’t feel comfortable going to an adult or 911,” he said.

In general, tips are reported in one of three ways: a 24-hour phone line, app or website.

The app, downloadable from the App Store or Google Play, prompts users to come up with a numeric passcode before entering their location and choosing a type of issue to report.

It offers a list of 33 options, including sexual harassment, physical abuse, hazing, a planned school attack and others.

Users are then asked, “What’s going on?” and prompted for details.

The reports go to a Miami, Florida-based crisis center staffed by counselors who are trained in suicide intervention, active listening and mandatory reporting.

The counselors review each tip as it comes in, and if possible go back and forth with the tipster to gain more information.

From there, they determine whether to report the tip to the school district only or to involve law enforcement.

A tip about bullying, for example, might be reported solely to the school district so it can employ its own policies and procedures to address the case. A serious case, such as a report of school violence or suicide, will be forwarded to 911 dispatchers.

Sandy Hook Promise works with a school district to teach officials about threat assessments, build protocols for response and make connections with local law enforcement.

The districts also sign lengthy memorandums of understanding with the nonprofit, which provides the program at no cost to individual districts.

There are costs associated with statewide programs such as in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, which in March announced a partnership with Sandy Hook Promise to provide the anonymous reporting system statewide.

The districts are required to establish district- and school-based teams of three to five people each who are committed to responding to reports any time of day or night.

Makris said that can be a concern for some districts at the start, but the group will not work with districts that don’t form the response teams.

“What we find is after they experience truly saving a child’s life and see the benefit of the program, that (hesitation) goes away,” he said.

Larry Malone, superintendent in RSU 57, said he has been contacted after school hours or later in the evening by the new system, but it’s not as much of a problem as he had expected.

“At the beginning I think we were anticipating a lot more tips or calls than we got,” he said. “We were informed most school districts that start to use this see a spike or high amount of calls early on and then it plateaus off a little bit. I think that’s what we saw and I think it’s been helpful.”

In Waterville, Superintendent Eric Haley also said he’s been notified at night or on the weekends about threats of violence, but he considers it part of his job to respond no matter the time.

“If you got a phone call at 1 a.m. and you’re a guidance counselor and one of your students says they’re on the Waterville-Winslow bridge and they’re going to jump, you’re going to respond,” he said. “This just makes it easier.”

WHAT GETS REPORTED?

Nationwide, most tips that come into Say Something are related to depression and anxiety, followed by reports of bullying or cyberbullying, suicide, and cutting or self-harm.

Drug use and distribution, sexual harassment, distribution of inappropriate photos and reports about weapons make up smaller numbers of complaints.

Aimee Thunberg, a spokeswoman for Sandy Hook Promise, said while unfounded reports do come in, the nonprofit doesn’t see a lot of abuse of the system.

“We do get a couple of teens frustrated if they get caught doing something, so we’ll see them put negative reviews up on the app store,” she said. “Kids will be kids. Certainly we get some tips that aren’t founded, but that’s part of the job of our crisis center staff to determine that, and they’re really good at that.”

For the most part, the system truly is anonymous, Thunberg said.

“Everyone is trackable when it comes to the internet,” she said, adding that, for example, law enforcement could be called upon to identify the device from which a report came.

“But they wouldn’t see who submitted it, so in some ways, yes, it is 100 percent anonymous,” she said.

If it weren’t, Thunberg said students might be disinclined to make reports.

“When you’re given that anonymous buffer, you can bring stuff forward you wouldn’t otherwise because you don’t want to be labeled a tattletale,” she said.

“To some extent, if someone is threatening to bring a gun to school and you’re the one that told the teacher, that can be dangerous. So I think they feel safe to bring the information forward, and I think thanks to the training they feel a responsibility to do that.”

At the same time, Haley, the Waterville superintendent, said he is also surprised at the number of students who choose to give their names when making reports.

While anonymity can be a plus, he said, mostly Say Something is a convenient way for “kids in a weak moment to be able to get some help and strength by talking to an adult.”

Just this past week, he said, he got the district’s first report of the summer – from a boy who reported that another student was threatening to beat up his girlfriend and him – after officials had contemplated whether the system would be used over the break.

“That’s a time when some kids don’t have any supports at all,” he said. “Now they can call, tell someone about the situation and get some adult advice.”

 

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