Seattle Nonprofit Builds App to Stop School Violence

Data science would allow Washington school districts to see how certain student behaviors correlate with violence and suggest intervention possibilities.

by Allison Needles, Puyallup Herald / February 4, 2019
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(TNS) — Could an app help prevent school violence?

That’s the goal of NoSchoolViolence.org, a Seattle-based nonprofit that is looking to bring its app to Washington school districts.

The app, called “The Lantern,” uses data science to inform parents, teachers and security officers of how certain behaviors correlate with violence and suggests intervention possibilities.

“What we’re looking at, in the app side, is to build community,” said Ben Meredith, CEO of NoSchoolViolence.org. “What parents see, what safety officers see, what teachers see in a student’s behavior.”

Leaders of the nonprofit are communicating with legislators to share their idea, which Meredith said is a preventative measure.

Washington State legislators spoke this month about what they can do to make schools safer. There’s no plan at the moment to arm teachers, reported The News Tribune’s James Drew.

Instead, bills sponsored by legislators this year include establishing safety centers and requiring threat-assessment training for staff members.

The nonprofit’s app could help, said Meredith — not just with fatal acts of violence, but nonfatal ones. He visited Tacoma in January to give a presentation on the app at New Tech Tacoma, a community meet-up group.

Here’s how the app works: When a parent, teacher, security officer or other adult is concerned about the behavior of a child, they can type that trait into the app. The app then suggests other behaviors that could stem from that first behavior.

As an example, Meredith typed “bullying” into the prototype at his presentation. One of the resulting behaviors that showed up was “stealing.”

The app then ranks those behaviors and whether or not they’re in need of immediate intervention.

A student that spends a lot of time in his/her room might not be a cause for concern, Meredith said. But adults might not know something is wrong until they have the whole picture — at home and at school.

“When you start seeing these behaviors as a group ... the safety officer and parent are connected together. They begin to get a fuller picture of the student,” Meredith said. “This is where we believe we can help the students with an intervention beforehand.”

So where does the app get its information? Everywhere, Meredith said.

The app uses data science and natural language processing to scour the internet for “everything that was written about school violence,” Meredith said.

The nonprofit has found some interesting patterns in its research. In every school shooting in the United States, and all but one overseas, the shooters purchased new clothing two weeks prior to the shooting — most commonly, a leather jacket, Meredith said.

Mark Ketter, a school resource officer with the Puyallup School District, said that while he hasn’t heard about the app before, it would be interesting to learn more.

Ketter added that it’s helpful to get points of view from other professionals, such as mental health counselors and psychologists.

There is one question Ketter had about the information entered into the app: What happens to it?

Meredith had an answer for that.

“We do not track students,” Meredith wrote in an email. “We do not hold on to any Personal Identification Information. This information never gets to our servers in any way.”

Meredith added that the decision to take action is left in the hands of the school officials and parents that make up the “circle of trust” for a student.

“They are the best judges of the local situation,” Meredith said.

Charmaine Krause, director of student services and safety at the Puyallup School District, said the district uses a anonymous hotline for safety alerts, but that the district is open to new ideas.

“We’re always interested in how technology can help us and support school safety in general,” she said.

Leaders of NoSchoolViolence.org want the app to be available to the public and school districts through grant funding.

The app is still only a prototype but is expected to be released by the end of the quarter to be used for free by the public.

On Thursday, leaders of the nonprofit made a brief visit with state Superintendent Chris Reykdal.

“They provided us with comments on concerns they have and design features they would like to see incorporated, to which we are appreciative and will take to heart as we continue to develop this intervention assistance tool,” Meredith wrote in an email. “And we all agreed that helping our students stay safe is a group effort that ‘takes a village,’ as it is said.”

©2019 the Puyallup Herald (Puyallup, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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