School administrators are increasingly looking to connect with students where they are — and that means on their phones. Now some are using that technology to create a safer school climate and trying to help kids in distress.
Delaware’s Colonial School District now has joined a handful of others in the state by introducing a safety app that lets students anonymously report bullying, dangerous situations and other troubling matters.
At William Penn High in New Castle, Colonial supervisor John Barr showed senior Leah Green how to download the STOPit app to her phone. Then Barr gave her a tutorial on how to report issues such as a looming fight or concerns over a student’s mental health.
“So you are going to select, whether it’s a bullying issue, the location, if it was at the bus stop, the cafeteria,’’ Barr counseled, showing her a variety of options.
“This is a 24-7 monitored application,” he said. “So it will notify the folks that are designated at the district, and we will decipher what kind of emergency it is and get you the help you are requiring.”
Green said that students need such a vehicle to let teachers and administrators know what’s happening at Penn, the largest high school in the state with nearly 2,300 students.
“It would be much easier to report the incidents that happen in our school because so much happens and not everybody knows about it,’’ she said.
She noted that students share information “on social media, but adults aren’t up on all that stuff.”
Green also likes the anonymity, pointing out that students fear the backlash from reporting problems that are ongoing, imminent or brewing.
“You don’t want to be a snitch or get involved in drama,’’ she said. “So this app is going to help students be able to talk to the administration without putting themselves in danger.”
Penn sophomore Andre Monroe agrees.
“I like the anonymous part of it because many students of course are dealing with peer pressure,’’ he said. “Especially with fights, you don’t want to be known as the student that went to the principal’s office and snitched.”
The app, developed by Holmdel, N.J.-based STOPIt Solutions about five years ago, is available in a handful of Delaware’s 19 school districts, including Appoquinimink and Milford, company president Parkhill Mays III said.
The app is also being used by 160,000 New Jersey students and 2.9 million students nationwide, Mays said. The cost to schools is about $1 a year per student.
“We give students a simple and powerful tool to reach out for help and they can reach out anonymously and securely,’’ Mays said. “All our focus groups show that you need to give a young person the ability to stay anonymous. They don’t like traditional ways of reaching out, like a telephone, and there’s something about typing into a faceless, nameless keyboard.”
The app even has a chat feature that lets students have anonymous conversations with school leaders. Barr said he sees the app helping Colonial defuse simmering situations before they explode, and providing needed assistance to struggling kids.
The app is being rolled out at Penn and Colonial’s three middle schools but will eventually be expanded to district elementary schools and all 10,000 students.
It’s costing Colonial about $20,000 over two years, courtesy of a state safety grant, but Barr said it’s a worthwhile investment.
“If we can help one kid save a life, stop an event, it’s worth it,’’ he said.
Tom Poehlmann, director of safety and security at Appoquinimink in southern New Castle County, said STOPit has been in use for a year and is currently generating about 120 reports per month.
Initially, he said, kids put bogus or “nonsense” reports on the app such as a teacher who gives too much homework but that practice has ceased and instead the app had alerted schools to serious situations. For example, he said, a friend reported that a girl was harming herself and officials arranged for an evaluation almost immediately.
“We take this stuff seriously and we want to stamp it as quickly as we can,” Poehlmann said.
Green’s mother Dawn said it could help kids in distress. She plans to download the app and encourage other parents to do so as well.
“There’s a lot of cases of kids feeling hopeless and feeling suicidal,” Green said. “I’m hoping kids at least feel like they can maybe report that a friend is feeling that way.”