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A year after Parkland shooting, can anonymous tip lines help students keep schools safer?

This week marks a year since a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and educators. Since then, a renewed push for school safety has led to the development of initiatives like Safe2Say Something, through which Pennsylvania students can report concerns or red flags via an app. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was one year ago this week that a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and educators.

    Since that time, there has been a push for securing schools, for arming teachers, and for tightening gun laws. Schools and districts are also increasingly turning to anonymous tip lines to encourage students to report any concerns they have.

    The latest state to jump on board is Pennsylvania.

    Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week went to see how it's working for our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Inside this cramped temporary office sits the nerve center of Pennsylvania's new effort to make schools safer.

  • Woman:

    Hi, Ryan. This is Dawn at the Safe2Say program.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Here, 24/7, analysts are handling tips from the state's Safe2Say something program. Barely a month-old, the program encourages students, teachers, parents to report threats of violence, self-harm, any safety concern, anonymously, through a cell phone app, 800 number or Web site.

  • Woman:

    Could you please check on her well-being?

  • Lisa Stark:

    The Pennsylvania legislature approved the program, and now every school in the state, public and private, must sign on.

    Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office is in charge.

  • John Shapiro:

    Students have a right in this commonwealth and in this country to go to school in a safe environment. One of the things we have learned in law enforcement is, oftentimes, the best way to keep them safe is to give them an outlet to share information, to share tips.

  • Man:

    There are three ways to submit your tip.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Schools are in the midst of a massive effort to train teachers and hundreds of thousands of middle and high school students on how to use the app and tip line, with the help of the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise.

  • Man:

    Some statistics given to us by Sandy Hook's Promise, we know that in a majority of school violent acts, that there are warning signs, signals and threats ahead of time.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Sandy Hook Promise, started by some parents whose children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, has long stressed that schools shootings can be prevented.

  • Actor:

    Being bullied, the obsession with guns, even posting on Instagram about shooting up the school, I mean, no one said anything. I'm sure tomorrow somebody will wish they had said something.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The hope is that an app, simple to use and anonymous, will encourage students to report what they have overheard in the hallways, or seen online.

    That's not easy say seniors Aunna Rubacha and Gracen Smacher.

  • Aunna Rubacha:

    A lot of people might feel that it's not their place to say anything, or they will think that, oh, somebody else will report it, it doesn't have to be me.

  • Gracen Smacher:

    It's hard to kind of sometimes go behind someone's back. And, like you're, doing it in a nice way, you're doing it for their protection, but it also takes a lot of courage.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Educators and safety experts say it's critical to change that mind-set, to stress that reporting a concern is not snitching.

    Superintendent Brian Uplinger.

    What do you think needs to be in place for kids to want to utilize the app?

  • Brian Uplinger:

    Knowing that there is going to be a resolve to the question or the concern that they have brought forward, knowing that there is someone on the other end of that app that is going to respond and take care of situation that they are reporting.

  • Lisa Stark:

    So how does the system work? Administrator Matt LaBuda with the Northern York County School District showed us.

    So, that's what a student would see as well?

  • Matt Labuda:

    This is what anyone that wanted to submit a tip would see.

  • Lisa Stark:

    OK.

  • Matt Labuda:

    Then you simply just click, submit a tip.

  • Lisa Stark:

    OK.

    And that's where Brittney Kline and her team come in.

  • Brittney Kline:

    I have a group of analysts who receive the tip, they review the tip, they analyze the tip information, and determine what type of tip it is.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Anything urgent is passed onto districts and, if necessary, police, day or night.

    The challenge, making sure that tip is acted on. That didn't happen in Parkland, where numerous tips pointing to a school shooter were dismissed or ignored by local law enforcement, the FBI and school officials.

    In Pennsylvania, each school and district is required to have a team to resolve the tips to try to make sure nothing is missed.

    Although tip lines were created because of concerns over school shootings, they are much more likely to get reports about bullying, suicide, alcohol and drug use than they are about possible school violence.

    That's true in Pennsylvania so far as well.

  • Woman:

    This tipster is concerned that she might be harming herself again at this time.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Folks who have studied tip lines say, they have a lot of promise, but there's not a lot of evidence they have stopped school violence. How do you respond to that?

  • Josh Shapiro:

    Here's what I know. I know that we have been doing this for three weeks. I know that we have gotten almost 2,400 tips. I know that 900 of them were life safety tips. People didn't have an outlet to go to before to share this information. Now they do.

  • Lisa Stark:

    And Shapiro points out they did receive a tip about a possible school shooting. The tip came from two middle school students in the Hazleton district.

    City police chief Jerry Speziale:

  • Jerry Speziale:

    In the middle of the night, a Safe2Say tip came in that there is a 14-year-old boy who is going to come in tomorrow and shoot the school up.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Officers headed to the student's home.

  • Jerry Speziale:

    The officers were able to see this .45-caliber Glock loaded fully on a nightstand accessible to that juvenile.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The gun was confiscated, the student suspended, until an investigation determined comments posted by the student online were likely related to a video game, not a possible school shooting.

    Civil rights groups worry about students who may be wrongly or even falsely accused. Attorney General Shapiro says fewer than 1 percent of tips have been bogus.

  • Josh Shapiro:

    If you file a tip that is knowingly fraudulent, you can be prosecuted for that, and we will take that very, very seriously.

  • Lisa Stark:

    In the Hazleton case, the tip wasn't made up, but turned out to be mistaken.

    We asked school district police Chief Edward Harry about the consequences for the student, who faced police questioning and missed days of school.

  • Edward Harry:

    It's a necessary evil. We all know what's going on in our country today. We can't take chances. We need to take everything seriously. While we may get 20 tips that turn out to be unfounded, it's that one tip that comes in that we may stop something, something from happening, that makes all that worth it.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Many others agree. At least 19 states now have systems to encourage reporting of school safety concerns, and at least eight others are developing them.

    Some states who've had tip lines for a while say they have helped prevent real threats.

  • Eric Eshbach:

    It's sad that we have to get to the point where we have to put these things in place to ensure our student's safety.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Superintendent Eric Eshbach oversees the Northern York County District, which started its own Web site for tips a year ago. Gracen used that Web site, worried that a friend was at risk of harming herself.

  • Gracen Smacher:

    I feel like you just have to go with your gut. If you feel like someone is in danger or is endangering someone else, it should be automatically reported, without hesitation. I never want to think back and say, I regret not doing anything. That's my worst fear.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Tip lines, along with metal detectors, school resource officers, restricted entries, are all tangible signs of school security.

  • Amanda Klinger:

    Everyone can point to them and go, look, look what we did.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Amanda Klinger, with the Educators School Safety Network, says what's more important is the tougher work of helping educators create a school climate where students feel welcomed and accepted.

  • Amanda Klinger:

    School safety is the work that needs to be incorporated into the educational practice of every educator. It's nuanced work. It takes time. It takes, you know, professional development time. It takes money. That's really critical work, but it's way easier to go, hey, look what we did, we installed a tip line.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Superintendent Eshbach agrees.

  • Eric Eshbach:

    There is nothing more powerful than the relationships that we build with our students that make them feel comfortable to come forward and say, I'm concerned about myself, I'm concerned about another student, I'm concerned about this situation.

    No tip line, no security guard can ever eclipse the importance of those relationships.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Perhaps the best tip of all.

    For Education Week and the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Stark in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania.

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