Preparedness

School District's Latest Solution for School Safety? Watch Your Words — and Say Something When You See Something

'We'd rather y'all say something than not,' Frisco, Texas, Police Lt. Mike Hagan told a sixth-grade class at Lawler Middle School on Wednesday.

by Valerie Wigglesworth, The Dallas Morning News / August 31, 2018

(TNS) — Police don't expect students to exercise their right to remain silent, but they hope kids will learn to choose their words carefully.

Frisco, Texas, Independent School District (ISD), in conjunction with the city's police department, launched a new campaign this week called "Your Words Matter" in response to safety concerns following school shootings across the country. The goal is to keep students safe by teaching them about the consequences that may come with what they say or post online.

The campaign also coincides with the district's roll-out of the STOP!t mobile app, which allows students to anonymously report concerns, such as bullying, drug use, suicidal thoughts or threats of school violence.

"We'd rather y'all say something than not," Frisco Police Lt. Mike Hagan told a sixth-grade class at Lawler Middle School on Wednesday.

The renewed focus on school safety has led to changes in security and wellness efforts across the country. Frisco ISD has added extra counseling resources, a district-wide emergency manager and handheld metal detectors this school year. Some campuses are testing out student ID badges. One school has revised its bag policy.

Other upgrades are part of a $691 million bond measure that Frisco ISD voters will consider on Nov. 6. Those include installing bullet-resistant glass on interior classroom walls and adding emergency lockdown technology at each campus.

For now, the focus is the STOP!t app, a four-year-old program already in use by thousands of schools across the country. Frisco ISD is the largest district in North Texas so far to enroll. Others participating include Sanger and Everman ISDs.

Rather than sharing threats they hear through social media — and creating more concern — students are encouraged to report them through STOP!t. They can send videos, photos or audio files through the app. Those without a mobile device can go through the website. Parents and staff can use it, too.

And school administrators can reach out with follow-up questions while ensuring anonymity of the person making the report.

Each campus has a unique access code so the reports go to the appropriate person.

Use of the app varies widely, said Neil Hooper, chief revenue officer for the New Jersey-based STOP!t program. Schools might get only one or two reports a week, he said.

"Sometimes the mere presence of a solution like ours acts as a powerful deterrent against bad behavior," Hooper said.

Lawler Middle School science teacher Nancy Gardner told students the best way to help is to speak up.

"If you report, and it doesn't stop, keep reporting it," she said.

Lawler sixth-grader Rohan Aluru likes the idea of being able to alert someone, even if his concerns involve a rumor he can't verify.

"You can report it even if you don't know if it's true," he said.

The anonymous reporting tool was paired with lessons about how "Your Words Matter." School violence chatter is a serious offense. Any conversation or social media post about bringing a gun to school or harming others will be investigated, he said.

"We're going to take that as a true threat that's real," Hagan said.

Students these days don't always have the skills to cope with stress and anxiety, Lawler Middle School counselor Cara Yeates said. Sometimes that leads to attention-seeking behavior — and sometimes that results in poor choices.

"They don't understand repercussions of what they are doing," Yeates said.

The app gives other students a place to voice concerns about their classmates, she said.

"A lot of kids are seeing something and they know it's wrong, but they're not really sure what to do about it," she said.

In the case of school threats, students could face criminal charges for making a false report or terroristic threat. Since December, five teens have been arrested in connection with threats to Frisco ISD campuses.

Giving students a voice is key to improving school safety. Just as important, Hagan said, is teaching them that words, whether on social media or among their peers, can be powerful.

"What you say matters," he said.

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