RD678 - Plan for Implementation of a Statewide School Safety Mobile Application – December 2019

Executive Summary:

Major Findings

Finding: Based on the reviews previously outlined, the primary finding to guide planning for a statewide school safety reporting application is this: In order to effectively implement a statewide school safety mobile application there needs to be infrastructure in place to handle and appropriately respond to the reports it will receive. Providing Virginia’s roughly one million public school students with a mobile tool to easily report potential threats to safety is a fairly simple technological endeavor. The loftier and more critical task is going to be the development and maintenance of the complex “behind the scenes" technical, personnel, fiscal, and legal/policy infrastructure.

Recommendation 1

Virginia should create a school safety application technology workgroup to provide multidisciplinary input and buy-in on the purpose, design, and operation of the statewide school safety mobile application. The workgroup should be chaired by the VCSCS, and include representatives from the Department of Education and local school divisions, Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, Department of Health, Department of State Police, local law enforcement, Office of the Attorney General, VITA, and other appropriate groups. The workgroup should produce a report addressing the feasibility and implementation of the recommendations listed below and any other issues necessary to guide a Virginia system.

Finding: The technologies and practices now used to allow students and others to send and receive information about threats to schools and individuals are fairly new and evolving. There are various off-the-shelf reporting systems available to choose from, but there is no single, uniform model for operating and utilizing such a system.

Recommendation 2

The school safety application technology workgroup should closely examine the experiences of states that are already operating school safety reporting systems. These states have adopted different approaches to the administrative, technological, legal, and fiscal requirements for establishing and operating their systems, and Virginia should leverage this experience to learn which approaches have worked well and which have not. The workgroup may want to consider visiting states that have systems similar to what Virginia is seeking, to see close-hand how these systems operate.

Finding: Relatively few states have implemented truly statewide school safety reporting system. Of those that have, some are simple one-way “tip lines" that allow sending calls or text messages to a central monitor for routing to appropriate officials for further action. Other states have sophisticated systems that allow two-way conversations, reporting via phone, text, mobile app, or website, that can include pictures and video, and that are staffed by highly trained security or mental health/crisis response technicians.

Recommendation 3

If Virginia decides to implement such a statewide reporting system, the system should provide staffed coverage around the clock. The experience of other states shows that, although many tips are reported during school hours, a substantial number of tips are reported during afterschool hours and during the summer months.

Virginia should implement a system that supports all of the major communication methods commonly used by youth, which include two-way conversations, with reporting via phone, text, mobile app, chat, or website, that can include pictures and video.

Finding: The most frequent issues reported to existing statewide systems by students and youth concern potential suicides, mental health crises, and bullying. Reports concerning physical threats to schools and individuals, while critical, make up a relatively small percentage of the reports to these systems.

Recommendation 4

A Virginia school safety reporting system should anticipate and plan for responding primarily to reports of self-harm and mental health crises reports, but also to threats to others and to schools. The system should be staffed by individuals who are qualified to provide appropriate responses to students experiencing mental health crises.

Finding: States that currently operate school safety reporting systems stressed the importance of having staff who are trained and qualified to respond to the varied types of reports received by the system. These staff receive training in how to effectively communicate with youth, vetting and triaging reports, providing appropriate responses, and routing reports to appropriate services providers when necessary.

Recommendation 5

Virginia should clearly identify the types and levels of training and qualifications required for those who staff the reporting system. Staff who respond to reports involving suicide and mental health crisis must be trained in dealing with people in crises. Similarly, staff who respond to threats of harm to others or schools must be trained to contact the appropriate local authorities.

Finding: States that currently operate school safety reporting systems receive a large number of reports. The number of reports received annually by the systems reviewed ranged from slightly over 1,000 individual incidents annually in Wyoming, to nearly 23,500 during the first six-months of operation in Pennsylvania. Additionally, most states reported increasing volumes of reports over time.

Recommendation 6

Virginia should anticipate the need to receive and respond to as many as 25,000 reports annually and that this number may increase as awareness of the system increases. While the volume of anticipated reports is an estimate, the experiences of other states suggest this is reasonable.

Virginia should consider whether its current public safety and mental health crisis response systems will be able to handle the large number of additional reports that a statewide school safety reporting system will generate.

Finding: All of the systems now in use allow anonymous and/or confidential reporting, but also allow reporters to provide their identities if they choose to do so. Most have legal provision for breeching confidentiality in life-threatening emergencies or by court order.

Recommendation 7

Virginia should develop a reporting system that provides confidential reporting (i.e., the caller is assured that his/her identity will not be shared without their consent or in the event of imminent harm to self or others). Because many responses will require providing acute crisis services, the system should not provide totally anonymous reporting (i.e., responders have no way to determine the identity of the caller). Furthermore, confidential, rather than totally anonymous reporting, may help deter false reporting.

Virginia should also develop a policy for breaking confidentiality if it is deemed necessary, such as reports involving imminent harm.

Finding: Most of the systems are managed by the office of the state attorney general or by a state law enforcement agency. In some cases, the attorney general’s office handles the policy, financial, and marketing aspects of the system, while the technical/communications function is handled by a law enforcement or emergency communications center that has the required technical communications infrastructure.

Recommendation 8

Virginia should carefully consider which agencies and organizations will be responsible for implementing and operating a statewide school safety reporting system. It may be appropriate to divide this responsibility among agencies/organizations having the different areas of expertise needed to operate, train, and market the system.

Finding: States operating statewide school safety reporting systems have created statutes and policies to address the security and dissemination of information reported to the system. These statutes and policies take into consideration both state privacy and data security laws, as well as federal laws such as HIPPA and FERPA. They also considered the concerns of school administrators, parents and students regarding how information reported to the system would be maintained, safeguarded and shared.

Recommendation 9

Virginia must have written policies on compliance with all applicable state and federal laws regarding the collection, retention and dissemination of data reported to the school safety reporting system. These policies should be made clear to those who staff the system, and to all potential reporters to the system.

Virginia should also seek the input of parents and students regarding concerns about how data reported to the system will be maintained, safeguarded and shared.

Finding: States that currently operate statewide school safety reporting systems have reported annual operating costs of about $850,000 to $1.2 million, depending on the capabilities of the system and the number and types of persons staffing the system.

Recommendation 10

When estimating costs for its statewide system, Virginia should consider the costs of the entire system, and not just the cost of implementing the system’s technology. Although there will be costs associated with purchasing, maintaining and upgrading the system technology, the larger costs will be for training and staffing system personnel, for ongoing marketing of the system, and for providing resources needed to respond to the reports received through the system.

Finding: All states that currently operate statewide school safety reporting systems heavily market and promote the availability of the system to youthful users, and how and when to use it.

Recommendation 11

Virginia should develop a statewide marketing plan to inform students, school administrators and staff, parents, and others of the availability of the school safety application. Funding for and marketing of the school safety application should be continuous to maintain awareness of the school safety application, and the marketing should be attuned to changes in how young people use communications platforms and software.

Finding: None of the school safety reporting systems reviewed had a direct link to a school threat assessment case management system. Most states focused on having their reporting systems able to quickly transfer information to the appropriate responders, or to quickly allow responders to access information about individuals reported as potential threats, rather than focus on linking information with a threat case management system.

Recommendation 12

Although no states reviewed had a school safety reporting system linked directly to a threat assessment case management system, HB1734 directed DCJS to develop a case management system and mandated its use. Given the purpose behind implementing a statewide school safety application, such a system should be developed and implemented with thought to possible integration with the threat assessment case management system required by HB1734. Most of the reports received by the school safety application, including those involving self-harm or mental health issues, may already be handled by school threat assessment teams as stated in the threat assessment legislation.

Finding: All states that operate school safety applications require annual reports to Executive and/or Legislative officials on the operation of the school safety application. Such reports are used to provide officials with information on report volumes, characteristics, and trends and changes in reporting, as well as providing recommendations for improvements to the system.

Recommendation 13

Virginia should require an annual report on the operation of school safety application to the Governor and General Assembly. The report should address, at a minimum, the following topics:

• Numbers of reports to the school safety reporting system annually, monthly, by day of the week, and by time of day,

• Numbers of reports to the system from each school division,

• Categories of incidents reported via the school safety application (suicide, bullying, threat to other students, etc.),

• Summary of outcomes and actions taken on reports made via the school safety application,

• Breakdown of types of recipients to whom school safety application reports were referred (mental health services, law enforcement, school administrators, etc.),

• Number and types of incidents of misuse of the school safety application (false/hoax reports, inappropriate reports, etc.),

• Breakdown of the method by which the report was sent via the school safety application (by phone, text, website, etc.), and,

• The total cost to operate the school safety application reporting program, including staffing costs, administrative costs, and support costs.

Finding: All of the major statewide reporting systems currently in place were created by state statute, which mandates participation by all public schools. In some cases, access to the reporting application may be limited to students above a certain grade level.

Recommendation 14

If Virginia decides to implement a statewide mobile application system, it should be established in statute. The statute creating the system should address, at a minimum, the following:

• Types of reports to be received by the system (threats of harm to others, threats of harm to self, mental health crises, criminal activity, etc.),

• Agencies/organizations responsible for establishing and operating the system,

• Which schools will be mandated to participate in the system (K-12 public schools, private schools, specialized schools, etc.),

• Legal liability for agencies/individuals operating the system and responding to reports to the system,

• How the development and ongoing operations of the reporting system will be funded,

• Security of the data received by the system, including with whom data can be shared and how data will be retained,

• Provisions for breaching confidentiality of reporting in extreme circumstances,

• Penalties for fraudulent or prank reports made through the school safety application, and,

• Required reporting on system operation to the Governor and General Assembly.