Story by Nick Keppler
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
In January, Pennsylvania launched an app to let students send anonymous tips about threats of school violence. Instead, the state got an SOS about the prevalence of bullying and mental health issues. The resultant dataset shows a hierarchy of teenage anxieties and their environment.
The Safe2Say Something program was meant to “provid[e] for methods of anonymous reporting concerning unsafe activities in schools,” according to the law that created it. When it was announced last October, Attorney General Josh Shapiro touted it as a measure for school safety, declaring that “students deserve a safe place to learn, free from the threat of violence from classmates or other individuals.”
About a thousand schools or school districts in Pennsylvania, both public and private, held trainings for 863,986 students in the use of Safe2Say.
But, once the app was in the kids’ hands, reports about threats of violence from disgruntled classmates or outsiders were dwarfed by tips about bullying and mental health concerns. From the app’s launch, on Jan. 14 of this year through June 30, Safe2Say received 23,494 serious tips.
The most common categories, according to a recently released report were:
Bullying/Cyber Bullying, 3,558; Cutting/Self-Harm, 2,529; Suicide/Suicidal Ideation, 2,184; Depression/Anxiety, 2,121; Drug Use/Distribution/Possession, 1,921; Tobacco Smoking in School, 1,448; Inappropriate Language/Gestures/Behavior, 949; Threat Against School, 607; General Harassment, 574; Threat Against Person, 523; Anger Issues, 195; Planned Fight/Attack, 183
There were 1,940 tips in Allegheny County: Bullying/Cyber Bullying, 327; Drug Use/Distribution/Possession, 170, Cutting/Self-Harm, 158; Suicide/Suicide Ideation, 154; Depression/Anxiety, 136; Inappropriate Language/Gestures/Behavior, 100; Tobacco Use in School, 85; Threat Against School, 66; Threat Against Person, 55; General Harassment, 54
Statewide, students were less frequently disturbed by threats of violence than they were by problems of mental wellness and issues with bullying; about 29 percent of tips were about depression, self-harm or suicidal thoughts, 17.5 about bullying or harassment and 6 percent about a threat, a fight or anger issues. Numbers in Allegheny County were a microcosm of this.
This information comes with a few caveats: The is a list of reports rather than verified incidents. Also, some episodes generated multiple tips, according to a source in the Attorney General’s Office, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Students in kindergarten through grade 12 were trained in how to use the app (and a corresponding phone number and website), but expectedly most tips came from high-school age students using the app, said the source in the AG’s office. The behavioral health tips were reported by both people experiencing them and witnessing them in others.
The program was developed in partnership with the Sandy Hook Promise, a gun violence prevention group formed by parents from Newtown, Conn., following the 2012 school shooting. Since its formation, the group has developed anonymous reporting programs, says Tim Makris, co-founder and managing director of the Sandy Hook Promise.
“When we first studied this, we found most [anonymous reporting systems] were not liked by police and most were not working for schools,” says Makris.
Pennsylvania’s program is the largest implementation of one of the Sandy Hook Promise’s systems and protocols, which call for a vetting of tips, says Makris. Once it received a tip, the Attorney General’s office corresponded with the tipster to determine if it was immediately life-threatening or dangerous. If it was, it was passed on to police. If it wasn’t, it went to the school district.
The report’s conclusion acknowledged a pivot, stating that the majority of tips “have not been about students making violent threats to their school or to their classmates — instead, they have been focused on students struggling with mental health issues.”
Makris says he’s not surprised by Pennsylvania’s results. Training materials encouraged students to come forward with any behavior they saw as dangerous. Also, teenagers are engaged in measures to prevent violence, as evidenced in the activism after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, he says.
Also, just because the data doesn’t indicate reports of immediate violence, it’s still extremely helpful. Markis says that tips not related to immediate safety should be seen as part of a spectrum of harmful behaviors.
“To get to those 4-to-6 percent of kids who will get to the extreme of hurting themselves or others, you have to get to those at-risk behaviors to be able to diffuse the situation,” he said, adding that an FBI report showed that more than half of mass shooters previously expressed suicidal thoughts.
Sophia Choukas-Bradley, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of its Teen and Young Adult Lab, says that the most common categories of tips show stressors that are common among teens. Depression and suicidal thoughts are on the rise, particularly for girls. Still, she says, “It is striking that over 3,500 reports were made of cyber-bullying, along with over 4,500 reports related to self-harm or suicide, in less than six months. These high levels of reporting indicate that teens are looking for a space to share the concerns they’re experiencing.”
Threats of violence are “less common than the all-too-common experiences of bullying and emotional distress,” says Choukas-Bradley. However, it’s important to not lose sight of them, she says. Notably, Pennsylvania students did make over a thousand reports of threats of violence. “[S]ymptoms of anxiety and depression may be affected by fears about school safety.”
“This generation of teens has grown up with access to social media apps that allow for written disclosure of intense experiences and emotions,” says Choukas-Bradley pointing to modern students’ propensity to pour their fears into apps and technology. Last year, texting overtook in-person conversations as the most preferred means of communication for 13-to-17-year-olds. “Many teens report discomfort with using the phone, ‘voice-to-voice’ communication having learned to engage in day-to-day communication and even intense, intimate conversations via text message or social media apps, rather than through phone or in-person communication.”