Wyoming’s use of an anonymous safety app has jumped more than tenfold in its first two full years, local and state officials said Friday, providing a crucial piece in a broader puzzle of school safety that administrators and lawmakers across the nation have tried to solve for years.
The type of tips sent to the app, called Safe2Tell, are broken down into more than two dozen categories, from suicide and self-harm to planned school attacks and vandalism. In a continuing battle to protect schools, officials here say the students themselves are the most important piece: first responders before the first responders.
The highest share of the reports fall under suicidal threats, both statewide and in Natrona County. Over the five months of the 2018-19 school year, the second-highest number of reports was for self-harm. The third was 26 messages expressing concerns about planned attacks, a stark reminder of the dangers facing schools 20 years after Columbine and barely 12 months after a deadly shooting at a Florida high school.
Statewide, the top three are suicide, self-harm and bullying.
The effects of the Safe2Tell app here aren’t hard to find: The district said in December it was investigating threats to two high schools after a tip came in over the app. Police had investigated a previous threat to Natrona County High in October, citing a Safe2Tell tip. Before that, a bomb threat was reported to the same high school, and a student was later arrested.
The app is relatively simple: Messengers — primarily students, but some adults — send safety concerns anonymously to the app, which routes the messages to the Wyoming State Highway Patrol’s dispatch center in Cheyenne. The dispatchers — who can communicate in real time with the tipster — then sends the message to the appropriate school district and, generally, law enforcement.
In Natrona County, the messages are sent to district spokeswoman Tanya Southerland and Tom Ernst, the district’s point person for student safety. The two can then send the messages to designated officials at each school. Districts receive the tips throughout the day. Indeed, according to data from Safe2Tell, Natrona County has received the most tips between 10 and 11 p.m. this academic year.
Messages can also be sent via a website or over the phone, though the majority of tips are passed via the app itself.
The program was initially unveiled in Natrona County in late 2016 but has since been implemented in each of Wyoming’s 48 school districts. They generally all follow the same process as Natrona County: officials who receive the messages at the district level, with designated people at each school who can receive routed messages specific to their building.
There were 118 tips statewide — largely here — between October and Dec. 31, 2016. In 2017, there were 743. The number jumped again in 2018, to 1,093. Two months into 2019, there have already been 293 reports.
In Natrona County, the numbers have stabilized. In 2017, there were 235 tips, followed by 282 in 2018.
Ernst, Southerland and Bill Morse, the state’s program director, attributed the jump to districts’ work to promote the program. Morse has traveled the state educating educators about the app, and he spent considerable time in Natrona County before the launch in 2016.
The officials said there are often spikes in the number of reports after a high-profile incident — like the deadly Florida shootings — that are likely a result of heightened awareness among students.
Southerland said the anonymity offered through the app can allow students to share concerns without having to worry about overreacting or repercussions.
The app is another tool for administrators trying to keep schools safe, Ernst said. While that imperative puzzle is a constant point of discussion for school boards and lawmakers, it has taken on new intensity over the past year, after the Florida shooting in February 2018 was followed three months later by another deadly attack at a Texas high school.