Text Tip Program Reveals Student ‘Kill List’

CASTLE ROCK, Colo.

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Douglas County police and school officials are crediting the district’s new anonymous text tip program with stopping a student from carrying out an alleged plot to kill other students.

The text message tip hotline, called Text-A-Tip, was adopted by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Douglas County School District in March. In the first two months of the program, the tip line received 146 leads, one of which was about a student who was said to have a “kill list” and access to weapons. After the lead was validated, the student was arrested. Several other drug possession and theft arrests have also resulted from students using Text-A-Tip.

So how can other school districts incorporate this type of program to protect their communities? Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Youth Education Program Coordinator Phyllis Harvey tells Campus Safety magazine how her department, in partnership with the school district, as well as the Parker and Castle Rock Police Departments, incorporated this tool so that it is now an important part of their crime prevention program.

Buy-in of Administrators, Students, Police Important

Harvey admits that when her department’s leaders were attempting to get stakeholder support for the tip line, they were lucky in that Douglas County only has one school district. “That made it easier because we were only dealing with one security director and superintendent, as opposed to maybe three or four,” she says.

Douglas County Sheriff David A. Weaver also knew that students would probably support some form of anonymous tip line because he regularly visits the county’s youth leadership meetings. “The students were telling him it would really be nice if they had some way to communicate with police anonymously to share information they wouldn’t normally share because they were afraid of their friends saying they’re snitching,” says Harvey. They also expressed concerns that they would be targeted if their classmates knew they were providing information to school officials or the police.

So with the buy-in from administrators and students secured, officials from the sheriff’s office began researching anonymous tip programs. Several of the solutions they investigated, however, were too expensive, costing about $30,000 per year. They then came across Text-A-Tip, which is an Internet-based application that costs about $5,000 annually. The county’s drug seizure board agreed to pay for the program.

District’s Dispatch Center Handles Text Messages

The fact that the school district has a 24/7 emergency dispatch center meant the tip line could be implemented with relative ease. The center, which dispatches school buses and monitors alarms in the schools, handles the anonymous text messages sent from students. Each high school in the district has been assigned a keyword for use in the program. The student who sends the tip then types in the access number or dials it from his or her programmed phone list.

Once a message has been received, the dispatcher handling it can communicate real time via text with the student in order to obtain additional information about the incident or threat. With enough information, the dispatcher contacts the appropriate resources, such as law enforcement, fire personnel or school administrators. If the situation warrants it, an SRO can log into the application, watch the conversation as it progresses and communicate directly with the student.

Be Sure to Educate Students, Media About Program

As this issue goes to press, there have been a total of 163 tips. Drugs (31), fighting (12), concerns about a student (9) and thefts (7) have been the most common verified leads. There were also 56 pranks, but Harvey believes that number is small when considering the district has 11 high schools and more than 20,000 high school students.

Harvey says that for the most part, the implementation of the anonymous text tip program went off without a hitch. That said, she believes her department and the school district could have provided more information to students about the program before it was launched.

“Do a lot of education first,” she says. “Don’t give them the number, but have some preliminary posters that go up saying, ‘It’s coming. Ask your SRO or administration.’”

Harvey also recommends districts and law enforcement work closely with the media so that correct details of the program are disseminated. In Douglas County’s case, one television station did a good job of explaining the program, but some others had the wrong information, which forced the sheriff’s department to have to do some troubleshooting.

Getting students to trust that the program is truly anonymous can also be a challenge. “We really have no way of knowing who the tipster is,” says Harvey. “That’s good, but it could be bad if you have someone who is suicidal and you can’t get them to divulge who they are. But every student who has sent in information who we felt we really needed to talk to in person, we ask them if they are willing to go meet with their SRO. Every one of them has said ‘yes.’”

Additional information on this program can be obtained from Douglas County Sheriff’s Department Youth Education Program Coordinator Phyllis Harvey at (303) 814-7033 or pharvey@dcsheriff.net.

To view a promotional video of the program, click here.

Bullying, Columbine, Weapons

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