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Kristen Blair: Smarter strategies emerge for preventing harm in NC schools

By Kristen Blair

A new school year is here, bringing new strategies for keeping kids safe.

Topping the list: A smartphone app leveraging the eyes, ears and savvy of students. Called Say Something, the app enables students to submit anonymous tips about threats on social media or at school. It’s a smart strategy built on this reality: Early intervention saves lives.

Anonymous reporting tools aren’t new — Colorado implemented Safe2Tell five years after the Columbine shooting — but calls for widespread implementation surged following 2018’s Parkland, Florida shooting. The Federal Commission on School Safety and North Carolina’s Special Committee on School Shootings urged adoption of reporting systems.

State statute requires every public middle and high school to implement anonymous reporting systems, effective July 1. Districts can choose any system meeting state guidelines but Say Something, funded through General Assembly allocation, costs them nothing.

Response to Say Something has been strong. “Roughly 70% of the 115 school districts and close to 80% of the charter schools have already signed on for the program,” says Joe Maimone, chief of staff at N.C.’s Department of Public Instruction. The rest have other systems in place.

Say Something’s tentative “go live” date is Nov. 1. Maimone says deployment may accelerate if training, particularly to 911 units, finishes faster. Sandy Hook Promise, Say Something’s developer, is leading training.  Founded by bereaved families following the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, SHP is turning “tragedy into a moment of transformation,” authoring the federal STOP School Violence Act and launching Say Something in 5100 schools nationwide.   

There’s much to applaud about Say Something. It’s intuitive, easy. Students submit tips using the app, website, or hotline. Categories include suicide threat, bullying, bragging about an attack, and more. A crisis center evaluates tips, referring them to school teams or 911 dispatch, if warranted.    

Evidence supports utility and need. N.C.’s pilot with a similar app, SPK UP NC, was based on this: Most kids say they’d use a reporting system, if assured of anonymity. There’s no fear of reprisal.

Knowing and reporting warning signs is key: In four of five school shootings, someone knew of a perpetrator’s intent but didn’t report. Among those committing suicide, 70% shared plans or warning signs beforehand, SHP notes. Say Something is proactive, efficient. It identifies those at-risk and intercepts them before problems occur, says Bo Trumbo, newly-appointed director of NC’s Center for Safer Schools. District threat assessment teams “can adjust to the circumstances,” says Trumbo.

School Safety Grants, established in 2018, build out local support. Grants fund more school resource officers and school mental health professionals; strengthen school security; and expand community-based interventions.   

That’s wise. Also, essential: Understanding protective factors; this is as important as researching risk factors, notes the Centers for Disease Control. This starts early. Close connections to parents and adults, consistent parental presence, supportive communication, positive coping strategies — these make a profound, protective difference.

There’s no singular solution to the heartbreaking problem of school violence. But state leaders are providing intelligence and infrastructure to intervene early and mitigate risk. SHP testimonials bear witness to lives saved, he says, and “this is the big hope in North Carolina — that this program can effectively engage students in the process of helping each other.” That’s my hope, too.

Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer and a contributor to the Carolina Journal, where this article first appeared.

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