(Dan Cepeda, Oil City News File)

Natrona County School District officials and the “Safe2Tell” Wyoming program manager say the anonymous reporting program gives students a confidential option to report a variety of concerns they might have.

Wyoming Program Manager Bill Morse said that Safe2Tell Wyoming is a program Wyoming adopted after Colorado developed it in 2000 following the Columbine school shooting.

“Students can use Safe2Tell Wyoming to report: bullying, stealing, threats, fights, drugs, alcohol, weapons, sexual misconduct, harassment, stalking, dating violence, cutting, suicidal behaviors or any other violent or dangerous situations that threaten their safety or the safety of others,” reads the student section of the “Safe2Tell” website. “It is for the purpose of prevention and intervention, to help keep students safe and healthy.”

The program allows students, but also parents and other community members, to report concerns via the website, a free Safe2Tell Wyoming mobile app people can download from Google Play or the Apple Store, or by calling the program’s toll free number at 844-WYO-SAFE.

Natrona County School District Director of Safe Schools Tom Ernst says the reporting options are especially important because students are “digital natives’, meaning they grew up in a digital environment and often are used to communicating via the internet.

“It’s very comfortable for students to do,” Ernst said. “They’re digital natives and this is their environment that they live in and if you ever saw a report, it looks like text messages going back and forth. That makes it very easy [for students] and that’s a comfort for them.”

Ernst explained the process that occurs when Safe2Tell receives a report. He said the anonymous report goes to the Wyoming Highway Patrol in Cheyenne. The dispatch officer then communicates with whoever sent the report to gather the relevant information. The tips are then given to officials in the relevant school district and the designated school. All tips also go to local law enforcement.

Ernst, Morse and NCSD Public Relations Officer Tanya Southerland all emphasized the importance of the tips being confidential.

“It is anonymous, so that’s incredibly important,” Southerland said. “That gives them the ability to share information that they might not know how to have action on. One of the greatest resources is that it allows students to be kids.”

“If they hear something that’s concerning to them either about their friends, or if they’re going through something personally themselves or maybe a safety concern for the school environment, we don’t want kiddos to feel like they have to navigate that themselves.”

“They are students and at the the end of the day they’re children. This allows them to be empowered to give that information to adults and the appropriate officials that can then take action, intervention and prevention around whatever the tip was.”

Morse said that NCSD started using the program in October of 2016. He said that former Governor Matt Mead had called for some initiative in Wyoming after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. He said that having communication channels people feel comfortable using is key to ensuring school safety since in a majority of school shootings, someone had information that may have helped prevent that from occurring.

Morse explained that the Wyoming program is very similar to Colorado’s program.

“We’ve pretty much followed what Colorado has done,” he said, adding that NCSD was at the head of the Safe2Tell program roll-out in Wyoming. “Natrona County was very interested in the program and wanted to help us.”

Morse explained that the program is now in place statewide. Since the Oct. 26, 2016 program launch, Safe2Tell data shows that there have been 2,243 reports statewide. There have been 644 reports in Natrona County over that time. Southerland explained that while the number of NCSD reports may seem high relative to the state, that was likely because the program has been heavily promoted in the district.

Ernst explained that there are different ways students are made aware of the program, depending on the school. He said some schools hold assemblies to teach students about the option and that there is information posted around schools to make students aware. Teachers, counselors and other school staff might also tell students about the program.

Ernst added that most NCSD students, particularly middle and high school students are aware of the program.

The majority of reports Safe2Tell receives relate to suicide or self-harm threats. The Safe2Tell data shows there have been 140 suicide threat reports, 75 self-harm reports, 68 bullying reports in Natrona County since the program’s roll-out. There have also 37 planned school attack reports in that time.

Southerland said that students being able to anonymously report suicide and self-harm threats was important. She said that the dispatch officers are trained to communicate with tippers regarding suicide and self-harm and can give them things like suicide hotline information as well.

Southerland added that reports that involve school staff are filtered.

“Those tips are filtered and they go just to Tom [Ernst],” she said. “That way there’s not an interference in the investigation. If a student has a concern with something that is going on in their building with a staff member, they can feel comfortable to submit that tip and it’s not going to go to that school because there has to be that level of confidentiality. Then Tom works that on his end with the appropriate officials.”

Because the program is entirely anonymous, Ernst said direct information about how students feel about using the program’s reporting tools is not available. But he said that the fact that the program has seen significant use in the district shows that the program has been a good option for students.

He added that he thinks the program is an improvement over what the district used to be able to offer students in terms of reporting channels. He said that the program being digital and anonymous gives students an option they can feel comfortable using.

“Before, a student might have to walk to the office,” he said. “They might be worried other students will see them. Now, with phones as common as they are, students can send a report and no one will notice anything out of the ordinary.”

Ernst and Southerland said that any tweaks to the technology side of the program would be managed at the State level. But they said NCSD is always looking at improving their process once the district receives a tip.

They added that the district acts on tips as soon as they get them, no matter the time of day. When they receive a late night tip, they’ll immediately begin to communicate with the appropriate people, including the schools and law enforcement. If warranted, they send out alerts to parents across the district as soon as they determine there is a need for this.

If they receive tips during the school day, they said it is often possible to address those immediately in the school, though they will send alerts if it is deemed necessary.

Ernst and Southerland added that law enforcement are important partners in the process. They said that school resource officers are often involved when there are relevant reports. The district cooperates with the various police departments in Natrona County as well as the Sheriff’s Department.