When someone calls the “WeTip” phone line in Wyoming, it is answered in California. Whoever picks up the phone writes down the information and sends it in the mail back to the Cowboy State.
The school safety tip takes several days to arrive, and it may not have even been sent to the right person. Whenever it’s opened, whatever emergency someone wanted to convey (“Tony plans to take a gun to school,” “Terri wants to kill herself”) is way too late.
This system, which is administered through the Department of Education, costs $50,000 a year. In seven years, there have been about 200 calls, and there isn’t a single documented case that it’s ever helped anyone in Wyoming at all because there is absolutely no accountability for results.
Fortunately, the Wyoming Legislature has approved a new system based on a successful one in Colorado, “Safe2Tell,” that has great potential to do what such lines are supposed to: prevent tragedies and save lives.
But it almost didn’t happen.
House Bill 144 was passed by the Senate 16-13 Thursday, creating the new program, which will be part of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). Opponents who no doubt will go home, as they have before, and tell voters they are for school safety measures tried to kill Safe2Tell with everything they had, including bogus information about what it does and doesn’t do.
For one of the few times this legislative session, the good guys won. It wasn’t easy, and the story about how HB 144 was narrowly approved should be told to voters. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first you need some background about how the program originated, how it is structured and how it will operate.
The Joint Education Committee was assigned to develop ways to make our schools safer. The members worked with the Office of Homeland Security and the Department of Education for the past year, and came up with a three-pronged approach that was quickly two-thirds de-pronged by officials who said the entire proposal was too expensive.
The two parts jettisoned would have had more school resource officers trained and assigned to schools, and architectural changes to school buildings to improve overall safety.
Safe2Tell is what survived, and it’s modeled on a Colorado program that has been extremely successful. The concept is based on this fact: Children don’t want to tell on their friends to parents or other adults, but they often know things going on at school that are dangerous and/or life-threatening.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Hank Coe (R-Cody) noted during debate Thursday that in 81 percent of cases of violence at U.S. schools, somebody besides the perpetrator knew something was going to happen, but didn’t tell anyone.
That’s a staggering statistic. Potentially four out of five violent school incidents might be prevented if authorities had advance knowledge.
Colorado launched a massive education program that directed students to call the Safe2Tell phone number, where they can anonymously tell an adult if they fear something bad is about to happen. It could be a student planning to kill classmates, or a classmate considering suicide, a victim of child abuse, or someone being extremely bullied, either physically or via cyber-bullying. Trained dispatchers at the DCI’s call center will obtain information, assess each threat, and notify the proper authorities so it can be immediately acted upon.
The program’s goal to break the “code of silence” is being reached. Here’s just one example of violence that was prevented: A 16-year-old high school student west of Denver was arrested and convicted of illegal gun possession after a tipster reported his MySpace page showed photos of the teen posing with numerous guns and rifles. The student had written that “people deserve to die.”
The student was expelled and he served time in a detention facility.
Safe2Tell Colorado has also been responsible for preventing several suicides at various stages of planning. Wyoming has consistently had one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, especially for teens.
The program is based on the Columbine Commission’s recommendation that students need a safe and anonymous way to keep lines of communication open. It started slow, but in four years the hotline has received more than 3,900 calls, resulting in 159 investigations, 23 arrests, and 127 calls interrupted a plan or triggered an intervention.
Out-of-state operators who have no responsibility to do anything except send a letter will be replaced in Wyoming by professionals who will follow up on each call. The Senate approved five new positions at DCI: three at the call center who will make sure the facility operates 24/7, 365 days of the year; an outreach coordinator who will visit school districts throughout the state to build awareness of Safe2Tell; and a director.
The House cut the positions from five to three. The Senate adopted the Education Committee’s full recommendation, which will cost $410,000 per biennium. Part of the price tag is a one-time software purchase that’s needed to make the program operate effectively. All of the money will come out of the School Foundation Program (SFP), which is separate from the state’s General Fund, which funds the bulk of state government operations.
A joint conference committee will have to agree on the number of positions and total appropriation. But the important thing that happened Thursday is the fact there will even be a program at all, and that right-wing conservatives in the Senate weren’t able to kill it under the guise of saving state funds or keeping government small.
But they certainly tried.
The Senate included a sunset measure that will require DCI officials to return in 2019 and report on whether Safe2Tell has worked or not. Proponents had no problem with that change, because it’s a reasonable check on how the money is being spent.
Supporters beat back two other proposed changes in the Senate: one to cut the new positions from five to four, and the other to split costs between the SFP and the DCI, which is under the Attorney General’s Office and receives its appropriation from the General Fund.
Coe argued the program has been thoroughly vetted and five positions are needed for the endeavor to be most effective. Why handicap a system from the very start, unless you just want to see it fail?
The SFP/DCI funding split makes sense and can be tried in later years, supporters said, but it’s too late in the budget process to do it now.
Conservatives still went on an all-out blitz to kill the program. They were led by Sen. Drew Perkins (R-Casper), the only member of the Senate Education Committee who voted against HB 144 in committee.
Perkins said national suicide hotlines are available for students to call, and for everything else, 911 can handle the problem. He complained about an initial estimate of only 720 calls a year in Wyoming, compared to more than 3,000 in Colorado.
Uh, senator, have you ever noticed that Colorado has quite a few more people than we do?
Perkins criticized Coe’s argument that if the system can save only one life, it’s worth the investment. “All we’re doing is throwing money at a problem,” he said.
Perkins then maintained that local authorities should be able to handle every threat without outside help, a premise which is patently false. “We’re taking local responsibility and moving it to the state level,” he said.
He said Safe2Tell could result in false reporting to get students — he specifically mentioned the captain of the football team — in trouble.
Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) maintained if someone is from outside the capital city, “Calling someone in Cheyenne doesn’t do you any good.” But it will, because trained dispatchers will be able to immediately reach any resource in the state that can potentially help.
Supporters, armed with good, factual information, countered the assault.
Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock) said Safe2Tell will be “like having another set of eyes and ears out there” to protect us from threats we may not have any other way of knowing exist. As a former educator, he understands the type of threats that can happen at schools — he’s had to deal with students carrying guns, knives and homemade weapons.
Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper), a college administrator, stressed that “kids aren’t going to tell [adults] much, because they don’t want to rat out their friends.” But he added if they can provide a warning anonymously, as the Colorado program has proven, they are much more likely to reveal what they know.
“They’re not going to call 911,” Landen said.
It will take a vigorous outreach campaign to educate everyone at Wyoming schools that Safe 2Tell really is the place where it’s “safe to tell.”
Not surprisingly, given his objection to the entire program, that outreach coordinator is the position Perkins tried to kill.
Update: On Friday morning, the House refused to agree to Senate changes to HB 144. The issue will have to be worked out in a conference committee. If both sides do not agree by the end of the session, the bill will die.