Since SafeOregon launched in January 2017, it has received 540 reports of a suicidal student, compared to 278 reports of a threatened attack on a school. Pennsylvania’s Safe2SayPA took in 2,529 reports related to self-harm and 2,184 related to suicidal thoughts in its first six months last year, while threats against schools accounted for 607 reports. Nevada’s SafeVoice tip line, launched in 2018, collected 371 suicide threats, 350 reports of self-harm and 248 threats to a school in its first year. In Wyoming, suicide threats were the most common report to the Safe2Tell tip line in 2019, with 239 instances submitted, compared to 45 reports of planned school attacks.
In the aftermath of mass shootings at schools in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, school districts and lawmakers have poured billions of dollars into efforts to prevent another one. Much of that work has focused on fortifying campuses, adding panic buttons and bulletproof glass, and hiring more officers in schools.
But it’s far more likely that a school will lose a student to suicide than see one die in a mass shooting on campus. Five people were killed in a school shooting in 2017, and 30 in 2018, according to NBC News’ count. The number of children who took their own lives nearly doubled from 2007 to 2017, when there were 3,008 suicides among people ages 10 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Psychologists and counselors say these figures, and the data from the tip lines, should be a wake-up call to a far more likely threat that has not received the same urgent focus.
“School violence is not our only concern,” said David Lillenstein, president of the Association of School Psychologists of Pennsylvania. “We also have a bigger concern and that’s with mental health and mental well-being. Stronger locks don’t prevent a suicide.”
At first, police and school officials in Hermiston were skeptical of SafeOregon, a statewide initiative approved by the Oregon legislature. Edmiston, the police chief, said he initially viewed it as another mandate dumped on local law enforcement. Hermiston High School Principal Tom Spoo feared the tip line would be inundated with bogus reports. But after the November 2017 incident, Spoo said, “I thought, ‘Damn, this thing is going to work after all.’”
SafeOregon operates like many school safety tip lines. Once students submit a tip, whether through a call, the app or the website, a dispatch center reviews whether it’s an emergency and forwards it to police, a handful of school administrators, or both. Spoo has become used to receiving phone calls in the middle of the night warning that a student is in danger of hurting themselves.
“I knew of the mental health issues that we face in this area, and maybe even across the country, but I don’t think I understood the magnitude until you start taking those phone calls,” Spoo said.
The tip line has led to multiple interventions that may have prevented suicides, officials say. In one incident, described in a SafeOregon annual report, a crisis team visited a student’s home and discovered that she and her sister were being neglected, after a friend reported that the student had messaged her about suicide. Another student who talked about wanting to “blow her brains out” was connected with counselors after someone reported her comments through SafeOregon.
“The number of reports we get is saying that it works,” said Capt. Tim Fox, of the Oregon State Police. “The Hermiston incident says that it works.”
A key element that makes these tip lines successful, officials say, is that students don’t have to make a phone call or talk to anyone in person.
“Teens today worry about how others see them and are often afraid of being called a ‘snitch’ or fear retaliation for reporting a tip,” said Lily Brown, 16, a high school student in Roseburg, Oregon, who is a youth advocate for the tip line, helping to spread the word. “SafeOregon allows students to report tips in complete privacy.”
In Pennsylvania, 90 percent of tips come through the smartphone app, according to Brittney Kline, director of Safe2SayPA. She credits the tips with preventing multiple students from taking their own lives, including one attempted suicide that was interrupted by police. The Nevada Department of Education held focus groups prior to launching its tip line and found that students said they’d be more likely to reveal their feelings through text, said Christy McGill, director of the department’s Division of Safe and Respectful Learning.
At least 10 states now run school safety tip lines — Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wyoming — and an anonymous reporting system is also available to districts nationwide from Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit started by parents of school shooting victims in Newtown, Connecticut. Last month, Iowa’s governor proposed creating the state’s own version.
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