Local charter school launches new security program
See something, say something.” It’s the latest catchphrase to come from school shooting tragedies such as the one that killed 17 people on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida. A new program being launched Tuesday at Key West Collegiate Academy charter high school will enable students to actually do something.
Students will be briefed on the implementation of School Text Tips, a simple and anonymous text message hotline that allows students to immediately report weapons, bullying, drugs, harassment, cyber bullying, suspicious behavior and troubled students to school faculty.
“For years, the schools have been able to send out mass communications to students and parents, but I wanted to be able to reverse that direction and enable students to easily feed information to the school faculty and administration because they’re the ones who really know what’s happening. They’re our eyes, ears and boots on the ground,” said Shawn Verne, a Sugarloaf entrepreneur and father who started designing School Text Tips six years ago after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “So many other programs require users to register a username, create an account, fill out a series of drop down menus and then receive a verification email. That’s just too cumbersome. With School Text Tips, all they do is program a contact number into their phone and send a text to that contact whenever they have something to report.”
Students need not label the contact entry as “School Text Tips,” he said. “They can label it ‘Aunt Sally’ or anything else, as long as it’s something they’ll remember.” Verne tested the program at a school on Marco Island more than a year ago, and within a few months had heard from school officials that School Text Tips had prevented a suicide and identified a student who was cutting herself. “This saves lives immediately,” Verne said. “And in a time when all parents are asking what schools are doing to keep their kids safe, here’s a step forward with no footdragging or red tape.” Verne offered School Text Tips to Superintendent Mark Porter for Monroe County’s schools once before the Parkland shooting and again since, but the district has not taken any action on the offer, Verne said. “So I approached the principal of the Collegiate Academy, and his only question was, ‘How soon can we implement it?’ I offered it for free to the school district, but the superintendent said he had to give the new school safety director time to get his feet wet, and I haven’t heard back from anyone, which is frustrating because this saves lives and I have kids at Key West High School and Sugarloaf School.” When asked about School Text Tips on Friday, Porter told The Citizen, “We are evaluating all available products and do plan to make a selection in the near future. We are aware of Shawn’s product and do certainly appreciate the fact that he is a member of our community.”
In the meantime, Key West Collegiate Academy will host an assembly Tuesday afternoon, where students will receive a complete briefing, their school’s individual phone number and program it into their phones. “The students appreciate the ability to actually do something to keep themselves safe,” Verne said, adding that the text tip system actively analyzes tips 24 hours a day, seven days a week using artificial intelligence algorithms to look for emergency “key words” such as bomb, kill, shoot, blow up, suicide, etc. Each tip is read and analyzed in realtime for nature and content and is appropriately dispatched to predesignated school officials. The system also tracks tipsters who send in misleading or inappropriate tips from which a report can be filed indicating number of incidences and other pertinent data.
The school then reserves the right to decide whether the tipster should be contacted and confronted accordingly, thus reducing the chance of hoaxes. In an age of abundant caution, but amid funding shortages, school districts lament the lack of mental health counselors and school resource officials, so extra help to identify troubled students is being welcomed. “Let’s face it, the kids always know what’s going on more so than any teacher or counselor,” Verne said. “This lets us take advantage of everything they see and creates a watchdog community where bullies and troublemakers are deterred from doing harm since anyone who’s looking down at their phone could be texting a tip.” The Monroe County School Board meets Tuesday in Marathon, where a closed session is scheduled to discuss school safety.