Thousands of schools rely on apps from companies like Sandy Hook Promise and StopIt Solutions to prevent violence

Mass shootings, bullying, student mental health and the threat of gun violence have become increasing concerns in U.S. schools over the past two decades.

In the wake of the pandemic, which has both caused great harm to students and forced many schools to adopt new technologies for instruction, more and more schools are turning to apps to address these issues.

Police teach eighth graders about internet safety and cyberbullying at a middle school event
A police officer spoke to eighth-grade students about internet safety and cyberbullying in Stamford, Connecticut, last year.John Moore / Getty Images file

“Tech companies have really presented themselves as an app-based solution to problems in schools during the pandemic,” said Alexis Hancock of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

That’s perhaps to be expected – who doesn’t love high-tech solutions to everything? – and surprising, as thousands of schools encourage students and parents to download and use these apps.

The idea of ​​apps to solve problems ranges from cyberbullying to mental health crises to shootings is not new. And Corporate America is also going this route. But things seem to be looking up in the technical departments of various schools.

Craig Hansen said he realized during the pandemic that students were struggling more than ever. Not only did they experience the trauma of the pandemic, but they also suffered a long period of isolation from their peers and were excluded from many of their normal activities. And they still struggled with the normal pressures of school. That’s why he wanted to find a way to help. Hansen is the chief emergency officer for Questar III BOCES, a school that also provides educational and administrative services to districts in New York’s Hudson Valley.

“We knew it would be a good opportunity to get a grant to support our schools in this area, knowing the mental health challenges and stressors we were seeing,” he told NBC News.

Companies like STOPit Solutions, Raptor Technologies, Navigate360, Anonymous Alerts, and Sandy Hook Promise offer apps with a variety of security and monitoring features such as anonymous threat reporting, school visitor tracking, silent alarms, and communication with police and mental health counselors. Several states have developed their own reporting systems with similar functionality.

The companies say they give schools and students tools that can prevent tragedy. What is certain is that they are spreading more and more.

Hansen said he applied a grant from the Department of Justice and received funds to fund a program to help solve students’ problems. He considered a handful of options and chose STOPit Solutions because the company has a 24-hour monitoring center that evaluates reports. Fifteen area school districts joined his application, which was ultimately accepted. You are now starting to use the system.

“It’s another tool that allows students and families to report and get kids the help they need,” he told NBC News.

STOPit Solutions, a private company founded in 2013, says its app is now used by 8,800 schools in every U.S. state.

“We give children a simple, quick and effective way to provide help when they are in need. “It could be an external threat, a threat on campus, or an internal threat to itself, which is more common these days,” said CEO C. Parkhill Mays III.

Mays said the company receives 300 to 500 reports from students each night, and about 10.5% of them pose an imminent threat that requires police or mental health professionals to be called in.

It will take more than just an app

When it comes to the nightmare scenario of school shootings, what’s unspoken in all of this is that there’s not much parents and school administrators can do about U.S. gun policy or the state of the health care system in the near future, and both are often cited as factors in these problems .

Students hug each other at a memorial service following a shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan, on December 1, 2021.
Students hug each other at a memorial service following a shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan, on December 1, 2021.Paul Sancya / AP

But many school officials say they must do something. And in many cases there is a need for action. A handful of states across the country have passed versions of the Alyssa Law that require schools to have silent panic alarms in case of an emergency.

Craig Hansen said he sought the grant to fund the STOPit app in Hudson schools because New York State is about to pass that law.

In this context, something like an app that could report a dangerous situation or person seems much more helpful.

Still, apps like these could be a double-edged sword, experts say. While they could genuinely help students in crisis, they need to be implemented carefully – especially when it comes to possible violence at school. They expressed concerns about whether students would use these reporting tools, for example, to harass their classmates.

Mays said this type of behavior is rare because less than 1% of reports received through his company’s app involve users abusing the platform. He added that school administrators can block students who misuse the app.

Hancock, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that before a school partners with a reporting app like this, it must create procedures that dictate how different types of reports will be handled, what types of in-person interventions will be conducted, and when Among other things, parents or authorities are contacted.

Without that, she says, even a well-designed app isn’t much use.

“If you don’t have an outlined offline protocol, this tool is virtually useless,” Hancock said.

The experts NBC News spoke with agreed that children who appear to be suicidal need immediate help and that an app that allows students to report that they or their peers are having problems has obvious benefits – and that counselors and regular examinations and check-ins are also required.

Devorah Heitner, author of “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World,” said giving schools more resources to address students’ mental health issues would help more than an app.

She said there have been many cases where students have reported being afraid that a classmate would bring a gun to school – only that no one acted on the report, with tragic consequences. In some cases, she added, future school shooters have even reported themselves but received no help.

“It’s good to do school-wide mental health assessments on children and then take seriously what children say about their performance,” Heitner said. “I think we need more counselors than police officers in schools.”

Pushing for peer intervention

In his introductory materials STOPit solutions Tells students to take it upon themselves to step up and report behavior that could be a warning sign of violence, such as unusual and concerning actions or statements.

“Eighty percent of mass shootings are preventable through early threat warning indicators,” says STOPit national trainer Martoinne Williams in a training video for students. He says it’s especially important for students to monitor social media for these signs.

“Adults don’t spend as much time on social media, which means you are the eyes and ears on social media,” he says. He advises them to take screenshots and collect specific information about the time and place where a violent incident might occur, then report it to schools through the app.

“It’s like asking children to be their own private detectives in bullying campaigns, and that’s not an approach I would want any child to take,” Hancock said. “If we truly want to address this problem, it must be done through a multi-pronged solution, not a single app encouraging students to become police officers.”

Austin Crosier, communications specialist for the Hudson City School District, said STOPit is part of a broader focus on health and safety for his district.

“We have always encouraged students and staff to speak up and get ahead of the situation before it escalates if they see or hear something concerning or deal with an issue. All administrators, guidance counselors, construction psychologists, nurses and staff are ready to help as much as they can and will treat each case individually with the utmost care and importance,” he wrote in an email to NBC News.

Despite it, Experts who spoke to NBC News said the idea of ​​combating bullying through reports and apps has drawbacks.

The idea of ​​getting passersby to intervene in bullying situations has become popular, said Izzy Kalman, a school psychiatrist and author. But he says there’s little evidence it helps.

Kalman told NBC News that since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, schools have taken overly active measures to combat bullying, including asking students to report incidents of all kinds. In his opinion, it doesn’t work and could make the situation worse. He points out that there is nothing more exciting for a child than being told something, so involving the school management becomes part of a cycle of punishment and revenge.

“People get defensive when they get reported,” he said. “They want to go back and it escalates and leads to physical harm.”

There are undoubtedly times when children need to involve an authority figure, says Kalman. Especially when someone gets hurt, a crime is committed, or someone is in danger.

But in other situations, he says, schools should teach children how to solve their own problems and build relationships rather than telling them to report each other to authority figures.

Juliette Pennyman, superintendent of the Hudson City School District, which began using STOPit on Nov. 1, had a different perspective. She said she would use the app Reporting potential problems ultimately makes students feel more connected.

“I think it will benefit the culture of transparency and the desire to keep everyone safe and students caring about each other and knowing that they don’t feel like they’re telling a friend something if “This one is in some kind of distress,” she said.

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