Student Safety Hotline Finally Debuting in Illinois

Safe2Help Illinois — developed by the state’s emergency management department, terrorism task force and board of education, among others — is not intended to lead to the suspension, expulsion or arrest of students.

Closeup of the side of a yellow school bus.
(TNS) - After it was delayed for more than a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, an Illinois school safety helpline has been launched to give kids a safe and confidential place to report information that might prevent bullying, suicide and campus violence.

Safe2Help Illinois — developed by the state’s emergency management department, terrorism task force and board of education, among other agencies — is not intended to lead to the suspension, expulsion or arrest of students, but to “get kids to seek help,” Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Rebecca Clark said.

The program’s creation was prompted by the February 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida , that killed 17 people.

While the free helpline 
is now in the pilot phase at several school districts across the state, the roughly $1 million program is already available for all students and expected to be fully functional by the fall, Clark said.

And while students are still urged to first share their concerns with a trusted adult at school or home, that’s not always an option.

“Some kids don’t have a trusted adult to talk to ... and not every school district is equal, so Safe2Help levels the playing field,” Clark said.

With a goal of getting students to “seek help before harm,” Safe2Help Illinois allows students to report school safety issues in a confidential way, using a free app and via text, phone or social media platforms, she said.

The information from the student will then be shared with officials at the relevant school district, mental health professionals or possibly local law enforcement, depending on the nature of the tip.

Above all, the program is designed to connect local officials with mental health resources and intervention programs to help students before they harm themselves or others — a strategy underscored by data from other states using similar helpline programs that have noted the two most common tips are bullying and threats of suicide.

State data from 2015 found that 47,000 Illinois students reported attempting suicide, and nearly 100 Illinois youth ages 10-19 died by suicide, officials said.

Two in 10 Illinois students reported being bullied, with studies finding students who are bullied are twice as likely to attempt suicide.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation , in 85% of mass shootings there was information available — ranging from social media posts to signs of distress — beforehand, officials said.

“We’re trying to help kids understand, there’s a difference between ‘telling’ and ‘tattling,’” Clark said.

At Wilmette Public School District 39 , one of more than a dozen school districts across the state that are piloting the Safe2Help Illinois initiative, officials said it provides an additional resource to offer students to support their emotional health.

“With all of the stress families are dealing with because of COVID-19, this gives us a safety net at a time kids need it most,” said Tony DeMonte , administrator for technology, information, and safety at District 39, adding: “If kids can talk to a trusted adult, that’s great, but if not, Safe2Help can give us the feedback we need, so we can act upon it.”

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kcullotta

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