Solutions not so simple for assessing security threats in Aurora schools

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AURORA | Nearly a full school year after Safe2Tell Colorado rolled out a mobile reporting app, the state’s novel threat reporting system for school districts is seeing significant bumps in usage, according to the organization’s latest monthly reports.

From January through March of this year, Safe2Tell posted at least a 101-percent monthly increase in submitted reports over the same month in 2015, according to the organization’s data. April saw an increase of 58 percent over the same month last year.

“We’re 12 years into this, and sometimes we think we’ve kind of plateaued, but obviously not,” said Susan Payne, executive director and founder of Safe2Tell Colorado.

As of December, the organization’s app had been downloaded nearly 1,800 times, according to Safe2Tell data reports. In April, 44 percent of the 690 reports Safe2Tell received were reported using the mobile app.

“We’ve definitely seen the impact that has had,” Payne said.

Payne said that advances like the mobile app have helped transform the way students report threats.

“When activity is happening online, that’s a different level of evidence and a different level of what you’re looking at in terms of intervention strategies,” she said. “Students can screenshot the Snapchat or Facebook page. So when we ask for a description, they just send us a photo.”

Founded in 2004 at the recommendation of the Columbine High School shooting task force, Safe2Tell allows students and staff to anonymously, instantaneously report threats to local administrators and law enforcement. The first of its kind in the country, the program has become a national paradigm for school threat assessment platforms.

Earlier this month, Payne said that she spoke with attorneys general from four western states interested in exploring the technology. Separately, Nevada recently passed its own Safe2Tell legislation.

Originally operated as a nonprofit, management of Safe2Tell was transferred to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office in 2014.

In Aurora Public Schools, every threat that comes through Safe2Tell precipitates some sort of investigation by the district, according to Greg Cazzell, security director with APS. Typically, a reported threat that comes through Safe2Tell is simultaneously investigated by the district and local law enforcement.

“What you would see is two simultaneous investigations going on with a lot of cross information,” Cazzell said. “We’re going to have our in-house investigation, trying to identify students in-house and apply internal sanctions; whether that would be a suspension or ultimately an expulsion,” Cazzell said. “But on the other side, it’s a crime to disrupt the educational process, which is where our law enforcement partners come in.”

Those investigations are the result of a Safe2Tell message that is delivered directly to APD officials and several security officials at APS, according to Cazzell.

“That’s usually kind of the starting point,” he said.

Though he did not provide a specific number, Cazzell said that the frequency with which APS receives Safe2Tell reports waxes and wanes. Sometimes the district receives several reports in one day, other times a full week passes without a threat.

In the Cherry Creek School District, officials have leveraged a second channel for reporting threats for nearly 20 years. Deemed the Care Line, CCSD offers a separate, anonymous reporting system that only loops in district and local law enforcement officials, and is not routed through state patrol.

Rolled out in 2001 as an in-house response to the Columbine shooting, the Care Line offers 24-hour phone and email reporting to CCSD students and other community members. The district is currently in the process of creating a texting feature, according to Dr. Scott Siegfried, associate superintendent at CCSD.

Siegfried said that following nearly two decades of indoctrination, the Care Line is the preferred method for reporting threats in CCSD.

“I don’t want kids in crisis to be in confusion,” he said. “If I have a student with a suicide risk, I don’t need them guessing which one to call. We’ve trained so hard on the Care Line — for almost two decades now. That’s my preferred approach.”

Siegfried said that CCSD receives daily tips through the Care Line, the majority of which correspond to threats of self-harm. He said that the district only deals with homicidal or malicious threats regarding a specific school about a  dozen times a year, and that those threats are rarely deemed legitimate.

Like in APS, Siegfried said that what makes a threat legitimate is a careful equation carried out by district officials and local law enforcement agencies. He said that while every report is different, protocols typically result in the district combing through a student’s files and looking at patterns, such as repeated trips to a counselor’s or dean’s office.

If there is an immediate threat to a person, or place, Siegfried said that the district immediately contacts the nearest local police department to investigate the matter further. Due to CCSD’s size and the fact that it touches so many municipalities, the district works with five law enforcement agencies: Aurora, Greenwood Village, Cherry Hills Village, Arapahoe County Sheriff and Denver.

When a tip comes through the Care Line, Siegfried said that a rotating crop of three CCSD administrators receive alerts on their phones to sift through the situation. The team rotates in an attempt to relieve administrators from constantly working around the clock.

“There are a number of calls on the weekends, and they can be pretty heavy calls,” Siegfried said. “We try to rotate them through every other weekend so people can sleep at night.”

Echoing Payne, Siegfried said that the proliferating number of channels through which threats are reported makes the task of tracking them increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

“Social media has been the hardest part because information flows so quickly and to so many different areas, keeping up with it and being able to respond to it in a timely manner is nearly impossible,” he said. “I’d rather explain why we called for a secured perimeter, or a lockdown or a delayed dismissal and not have a legitimate threat than a legitimate threat that we didn’t act on.”

That’s why he urges his staff to be hyper-precautious when making security decisions.

“I encourage my staff to over-respond sometimes,” he said. “I’d much rather defend that position.”