In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
Karen McCuiston is director of the Resource Center for the Kentucky Center for School Safety. In 2014, the center rolled out a free safety tipline. It allows students, parents and others to report bullying, violence and other risky behaviors anonymously to school officials through a link on participating schools’ websites.
Q: How did the S.T.O.P. (Safety Tipline, Online Prevention) come about?
A superintendent came to me and said a young person in the district had taken their life. The superintendent was worried about bullying and had looked at tiplines but said the district was small and had a small budget. If they added a tipline, they would have to give up something else. I told others in in our office that I thought we could put a tipline on our website and offer it free to everyone in Kentucky. That is what we did. So our website operates as the post office and the tips go through it and are delivered to the district as an email.Q. How do you describe the tipline to school officials?
It is an online tipline that uses email, but you don’t have to have email to use it. The anonymous tipline can be used by students, parents, school staff or anyone in the community by clicking on the S.T.O.P. tipline logo on the school’s website. The tipline has forms that come up that you fill out. Those forms are written at fourth-grade level. (www.kycss.org/stop/
)Q. Is there a reason that particular reading level was chosen?
Most independent bullying gets intense about fourth and fifth grades.Q. There are three categories for tips – bullying, violence and other risky behaviors. As far as tips received, does one category dominate?
A. Yes, bullying and cyberbullying. That is what I call a gateway behavior, the beginning of other behaviors. The forms on the tipline website for bullying and violence have specific questions that lead you through the form, but those for risky behaviors are more general, like ‘What is going on?’ ‘Where is it happening?’ We didn’t know what all would come out in the risky behaviors category. I would have never thought about a meth lab being reported, for example.
Q. The S.T.O.P. tipline is not designed to be the only reporting tool for these issues, correct?
A. Right. It is not an end all, be all. We prefer the one-to-one of someone coming to a person they trust in the school. We want your children to feel safe going to any adult to tell them what is going on. Research shows that the more relationships we build, the less violence and problems we have in schools. So, we aren’t trying to take that away with the S.T.O.P. tipline. What we are trying to do is give you one more piece under an umbrella of safety.
Q. Why does this online option appeal to younger people?
A. We live in a digital world where kids will sit right next to each other and text each other instead of talking. We know they are comfortable using this technology, so why can’t we use it to make them feel comfortable to talk to us?
Q. Who receives the tips?
A. We recommend at least three people in the district receive the tips with one of them designated to be in charge. We want redundancy in the system. Before we set up a partnership, the school district must decide who in the system will receive the tip. Among staff we suggest to receive tips are the director of pupil personnel, safe school coordinator, school resource officer or principals (in small districts).
Q. How many schools have signed on?
A. We have 377 schools, including those in some of our largest districts like Fayette and Daviess. Approximately 200,000 students have access to the tipline. And it is growing. I have had five schools call to sign on just this month. I don’t go a month without two to three. At least three districts have left paid, automated systems to go with this system. They say ‘it is free; it does what I need.’
Q. How do you assess the program’s effectiveness?
A. We talk to the people who have it. I also send out surveys that ask them to tell me how many tips they get a month and to share some success stories.
Q. Can you share some specific stories?
A. One of the largest school systems that uses the tipline has had an issue with suicide in January and February, typically among ninth-graders. They got three to four tips but none of the tips provided enough specific information to identify who was contemplating suicide. But the tips came from multiple senders, so school staff were worried. They decided to be proactive and took several measures. In January, for ninth-graders, they brought back the suicide prevention program that was used at the beginning of the school year, they provided extra counseling time for ninth-graders and reiterated to students that the counselors’ doors were open to them. The district told us they didn’t have a suicide that year. We don’t know if the steps they took prevented one, but we felt good about it. This shows that the tipline can provide valuable trend data. Even if the tip isn’t specific, it can make you realize you need to do something.
Q. Do you have examples of tips that were specific, where a problem could be pinpointed and corrected for an individual student?
A. Yes. Two girls were being bothered at their bus stop by a young man who had graduated the year before. He would drive by and try to get them to skip school and go with him. They sent in a tip. The police were there the next morning and arrested him. The girls must have been afraid to tell someone but not afraid to put it on the tipline.
In another case, a little girl in eastern Kentucky was living in a meth lab. One of her best friends turned in a tip, and now the little girl is living with her aunt, and her parents are in jail.
Q. This program is free and easy to use. The main requirement is staff training. Why aren’t all schools on board?
A. It’s a fear factor, I think – the fear that if they get a tip and it isn’t acted upon there will be a lawyer knocking at the door. We tell them that there is no more of an issue with that than if you are at a ballgame and a student gives you a tip.
Q. Do schools have other concerns?
A. Some might think the Kentucky Center for School Safety is the tipline police, but the system is set up so that we don’t see individual tips. We don’t know how many tips a specific school district is getting so we aren’t judging them by the kinds of tips they get. Tips show up on my analytics as a group, not district by district. Also, because of concerns about hacking, we do not maintain a database. The schools and districts can store their data in whatever way they choose. We provide ideas about how they can use the data they collect.
Q. What are some of the challenges in getting schools to get the best use of the tipline?
A. Some don’t get many tips, mainly because they aren’t putting it out there. There are a number of resources on the website; one is a Power Point presentation about how to get the word out.
Q. How many trainings are held each year?
A. Usually one to two in the spring and one to two in fall. If a certain school can’t get to one, I ask them to host a training. If they do, we invite other schools in the region and that helps take care of training for schools in that area. The training is three hours. I use schools as training spaces as much as possible because they have the computers and board room we need.
Q. How long does it take to set up the tipline at a school?
A. After they are officially on board by getting the superintendent to sign a memorandum of understanding, which I suggest they do at a board meeting, it takes me 15 to 20 minutes to set up on my end. It takes the district about the same amount of time if they have someone at their end who understands the technology, but can take a day or two if there are problems. I test the system by sending a practice tip. We are very careful to make sure the system works as it should so that tips are received.
Q. What are your goals for the program?
A. We are ever-evolving. For example, we have added the forms in other languages, like Spanish. I use Google Translate so I can add any language schools need. As part of my survey each year, I ask, ‘What do we need to do to enhance the program?’ As they tell us what they need, we make changes.
Q. Any other points that you would like to make about this program?
A. Remember that it isn’t 911 and no one is going to call them immediately. And, if school leaders use this tipline well, it doesn’t have to be a burden, and it addresses programs before they escalate.