'It makes me sad," says Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, "that the experience kids have today is so difficult."
Bullying has been part of school life for a long time, but it can be hard to keep up with the ways in which social media continues to change the landscape. Facebook, of course, opened up a 24-7 world of online commenting. Then Twitter allowed for the sending of 140-character insults to followers instead of just "friends." Now there are also mechanisms like Burnbook.
The increasingly popular app, whose name is inspired by the movie Mean Girls, encourages anonymous postings about "jokes, fails, wins, sightings, shout outs, revelations, proclamations and confessions" within school "communities." It's free to download and includes communities such as Pre-K-12 and middle schools, and threats posted there have actually prompted school closures in at least three states.
In this kind of atmosphere, Colorado finds itself leaning more and more on a program called Safe2Tell.
After the April 1999 Columbine High School shootings, Safe2Tell was piloted in El Paso County as an anonymous tip line, where young people could report threatening behaviors and activities. From there it grew into a statewide nonprofit initiative; over the last decade and a half, it's continued its evolution into an outlet for reports on all types of unsafe behavior, including substance abuse, suicide threats and sexting.
Tips now come in not just by phone calls to 877/542-SAFE (7233), but also by text (to the same number) or via a web interface at safe2tell.org. Soon, there may be a Safe2Tell app for smartphones, too.
If kids see something online, they're encouraged to grab a screen shot and submit that. Today, 60 percent of the reports that come via the web include a video or photo.
Coffman says her office saw a spike at the end of 2014 with reports on depression and suicidal behavior, but bullying returned to the top of the list at the start of this year. And with cyberbullying in the mix, it's no wonder bullying is their most-reported tip overall.
"We learned of a social media page created for kids to send messages about anyone they hate," Coffman says, by way of example. "We were able to take that website down."
Founding executive director Susan Payne says that the idea for Safe2Tell developed because of research showing that in many tragedies involving children, somebody knew what was going to happen and didn't speak up. "Kids fear retaliation, they fear being labeled a snitch, and they fear knowing if it's a real threat or not, and that's not their job," says Payne, a Colorado Springs mother of three.
When tips come in, depending on their severity, the information is shared with schools or local law enforcement. Payne says kids don't often realize that so many people are ready and willing to respond. And from her days as a school resource officer, she says: "Kids will tell you they wanted protection."
In a bipartisan 2014 vote, the Colorado Legislature moved the organization under the umbrella of the Attorney General's office and granted it a $250,000 annual budget. Coffman says this speaks to how important the program is.
A January 2015 fact sheet reported 13,146 tips received in 10 years' time, with a 58 percent yearly average increase in the number of tips. However, a request to talk to someone who benefited from Safe2Tell was denied because it goes against the anonymous nature of the program. Protecting the identity of the victims and the bystanders who make reports is critical to the program's continued success.
The numbers tell an interesting story locally. Between Aug. 1, 2013, and July 31, 2014, Safe2Tell received 684 tips in Colorado Springs. The city with the next-highest number of tips during that period was Littleton, with 243.
Before you worry that the Springs is full of bullies and violence, Coffman assures that it's more the result of continued familiarity with the program. The job now is to educate others across the state about Safe2Tell, and to get them to trust it.
"This is a great success story, it's a Colorado Springs success story," says Coffman. "This is a program about teaching civic responsibility, teach kids to look out for each other."
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