In the first month of introducing a new anonymous reporting app to West Hartford’s middle and high school students, nearly a dozen reports were made about incidents of bullying, students threatening self-harm and other concerning behavior prompting officials to get students the counseling they needed, school leaders said.
West Hartford is one of a handful of school districts across the greater Hartford area using either an app called Anonymous Alerts or STOPit for students — and sometimes parents — to anonymously report concerning or threatening behavior they may see day-to-day with other students or on social media. Other school districts testing the apps include Somers, Granby and Windsor.
Since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, school districts across the state have turned to a number of initiatives to protect students and teachers — changing layouts of schools, applying bullet-proof film on windows, restricting who can enter schools during school-time hours, hiring armed guards to walk the halls, briefing teachers and principals on how to apply tourniquets in the event of an active shooter.
But now, some Hartford area school districts in Connecticut have turned to anonymous reporting phone apps so students can share their concerns without feeling like they are tattling on their friends.
Newtown has used the anonymous reporting app for four years, according to Newtown Public Schools Director of Security Mark Pompano, who said middle and high school students typically use the app to report other students vaping in school bathrooms, but some reports include bullying and inappropriate social media posts.
In Newtown, the district has seen some issues with false reporting but said there are ways for administrators to block users if they continually file false reports.
In response to the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. and the May shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, TX., the United States Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center updated its research and findings to guide school district leaders and law enforcement on preventing school-based violence.
One of those recommendations was to offer students a venue to report threatening behavior or bullying anonymously because “students are more likely to report concerning or threatening information when they can do so without fear of retribution for coming forward.” It also says many K-12 schools across the country have opted to use crime reporting apps.
In West Hartford, middle and high school students, as well as their parents, can download and report through the app.
“People want their friends to get the help they need,” said Andrew Morrow, West Hartford’s Assistant Superintendent for Administration. “The goal is getting students the help they need.”
The app includes the West Hartford Cares card — a spread of different numbers in the event of an emergency, counseling centers, phone numbers for different hospital emergency departments — created last year through the town’s substance abuse prevention commission. There are also links to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and stopbullying.gov.
West Hartford police are notified if someone reports threats of violence either toward themselves or toward the school, or anything that has to do with using weapons, Morrow said.
In Somers, the app is only being used at the high school level, according to Schools Superintendent Brian Czapla, and is limited to students.
“We feel it is more important to deal with these issues rather than know who is reporting them,” Czapla said. “This is part of our strategy, a multi-prong strategy to keep kids safe and secure both inside school and outside school.”
Somers’ 400 high school students have been using the app for about three weeks, and activity has been slow.
“Hopefully that’s a sign that there aren’t a lot of negative things going on,” Czapla said.
In Windsor and Granby, students are using the STOPit app.
Windsor Schools Superintendent Craig Cooke said he learned about anonymous reporting apps being used in big school districts in Kentucky and California.
In Windsor, the roughly 2,400 students in third grade through senior year would be able to access the app, and Cooke said he anticipates the most use will be from middle and high school students.
Granby Schools Superintendent Alan Addley said the app is for students in fourth grade through high school seniors. Younger students use Chromebooks, which include the app, and older students typically have cell phones.
Addley said the app came as a recommendation from a school board member, and working through the district’s safety procedures, district leaders decided to roll out the new reporting app.
“Right now you can report anonymously, you can write a note,” Addley said. “There’s nothing new about anonymous reporting, it’s just the vehicle for it.”