A smartphone app is making it easier for students to anonymously report problems or concerns at their schools.
Locally, the three Greater Egg Harbor Regional high schools, Oakcrest, Absegami and Cedar Creek, started using the app a few months ago. Somers Point interim Superintendent Thomas Baruffi said his district will also begin using the app after an incident involving knives brought to a school dance led to more information about issues at the school.
“A lot of kids knew something was going on that night (of the dance), but they didn’t say anything,” Baruffi told parents at a forum on school safety last week. “But using an app, this is their world.”
The app, called STOPit, is used in about 6,000 schools in the nation, and is being offered free to area districts through the Joint Insurance Fund that insures them.
Scott Tennant, area vice president at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., which administers the local JIF, said they see the app as a way to help students and schools prevent problems, intervene quickly and reduce potential litigation.
“I don’t hear about things until there is litigation,” Tennant said. “But then we find out that people knew about the situation but didn’t share the information because they were afraid or didn’t want to get involved. This is totally anonymous.”
Parents at the Somers Point meeting wondered if students might be tempted to make prank complaints. The high school principals and the founder of STOPit said that typically does happen during the first week or two as students test the system, but then it drops off.
Principals at Oakcrest and Cedar Creek said the app has been helpful. They typically get two or three reports a week.
“Not all of them are really big issues, but they are legitimate things that concern the kids,” said Cedar Creek Principal Scott Parker. “We have broken up a couple of things before they happened.”
Oakcrest Principal James Reina said information sent in about a theft helped solve it.
They’ve received some bullying complaints and some silly complaints from students saying they were just testing the system.
“At first they sent goofy stuff, like their cheeseburger’s not good,” Parker said. “But that didn’t last long, maybe a week. It was just a way of testing it.”
“The benefits outweigh the concerns,” said Reina, who said he doesn’t mind getting an occasional prank complaint if the app could also stop a fight or bullying.
The app has two big buttons that let students report in two ways — one button to get help and one to send a report. All reports go to designated school personnel identified by an incident number. They can respond through the app, but the sender remains anonymous.
School officials said they don’t promise 24-hour monitoring of the reports, but they can receive them on their own smartphones, and if an emergency comes up, they would respond after hours as needed. Typically two or three people are designated to receive the reports, with one designated as a coordinator.
Todd Schobel, president, CEO and founder of STOPit, said he came up with the idea after hearing the story of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old Canadian girl who committed suicide in 2012 after being cyberbullied and assaulted.
“I wanted to make something seamless that was easy to use,” he said. “Students can add a photo, video or screenshot. This is not a silver bullet. But it is about being proactive rather than reactive.”
It is not mandatory for students to have the app, and Schobel said typically about 20 percent of students download it when it is introduced in a school. More add it as they see it being used and get comfortable that it is anonymous. Some will use it to reach out for help for themselves. Others are bystanders who have seen incidents or heard about a possible problem.
“Kids don’t want to report things personally out of fear of retaliation or don’t want to be seen as snitching,” Schobel said. “This decreases that fear because it is anonymous.”
In Tennessee, the app helped identify and lead to the arrest of a coach who had sexually assaulted a child.
Oakcrest student Diane Mullins, 17, said she had not downloaded the app because she doesn’t see a lot of bullying or issues to report. But she said she knows some students who have it and it is easy to use.
Parker and Reina said the app has broadened their awareness of what is happening in the school.
“Now we have hundreds of eyes out there rather than just a few administrators,” he said.