Look hard at the main page of your school district’s website, and you might find a link to something called the “Safe School Helpline.”
Since the late 1990s, some districts have been employing the 24-hour, year-round anonymous hotlines to help stop bullies, break up drug activity, solve crimes and get help to youths who might be on the verge of harming themselves.
The hotlines were most popular between 1999 and 2006, when the state picked up the tab for any district wanting the service. But when the state pulled funding, many districts hung up the connection.
“During difficult financial times, if you’re laying off teachers, it’s easier to just drop it,” said Jay Morgan, vice president for Columbus-based Security Voice, the company that maintains the hotlines for dozens of Northeast Ohio school districts.
But in recent years, hotline usage has been growing again. Security Voice now serves 6,000 districts across 20 states.
In Summit County, its customers include Hudson, Woodridge, Revere, Copley, Barberton, Tallmadge, Coventry and Springfield.
It also serves many districts in surrounding counties. Streetsboro in Portage County was the latest to sign up, with the board approving an $1,800 one-year contract this month. The fees are based on a district’s student population.
Hudson City Schools have been on board almost since the start, offering a hotline to students, parents and community members since 1999.
“At first we only got a few calls a year, then we got maybe a couple of dozen reports a year, and now we get several dozen a year,” said Mark Leventhal, a district elementary principal who has served as the district’s help line liaison for the past decade.
One reason it works well, Leventhal said, is because the caller can remain anonymous, but there can still be two-way communication.
Here’s how it works:
The caller (who can use a phone, texting or email) explains their concern in a communication that goes directly to Security Voice. There, it is assigned a case number.
A hotline handler relays the information to a school district liaison — immediately if necessary. If school officials want to ask more information — a time, a location, names of potential witnesses — they can reply to the person who originated the call. But the person is only ever referred to as a case number.
“A lot of people don’t have the ability to face a school person or counselor and explain their problem,” Morgan said.
All manner of issues come in. They can range from a bus that routinely drives down a street too fast to concerns about the actions of a teacher.
Leventhal said the addition of texting abilities may be the reason calls in Hudson have grown in recent years. Text messaging is a much more popular form of communication with teens, he said.
In addition, because the district has offered the service for so many consecutive years, it’s simply become a part of the school culture. Most people know it exists, and the phone number is on refrigerator magnets sent home with students, posters tacked on classroom walls, and a link on the district’s website.
Morgan said that while most school officials appreciate what the service can do, some have criticized the system for being anonymous.
“But we tell them if that’s their concern, then take no action on anonymous reports,” he said.
Just knowing the information may be enough to help a district keep an eye on a problem, he said, and it’s far better than a simple hang-up phone call or anonymous letter because officials can communicate with the caller.
“A person who doesn’t leave a name can still be questioned through the case number,” he said.
Coventry Superintendent Russell Chaboudy said he was a fan of the help line when he was a principal in Green, so when he took the top job in Coventry, “I knew it was a valuable tool.”
Coventry had the service, and then dropped it, before Chaboudy’s arrival. He restarted it in 2007.
Unlike in Hudson, Chaboudy said he only fields maybe three or four calls a year.
But he said just one of the calls made the investment worth the price. Someone had reported a student was suicidal, and after looking into the situation, school officials agreed it was serious.
“We got [the student] some help. I can’t tell you how that would have turned out if we didn’t intercede, but we definitely were able to reach out and help. You can’t put a price on that,” Chaboudy said.
And he doesn’t mind that the callers may want to remain anonymous.
“A lot of people fear things: bullying, retaliation. It eases that fear,” Chaboudy said.
He said he’s even handled calls from parents who want to seek help for their children, but didn’t want their child to know the parent had made the call.
Hudson’s Leventhal also doesn’t mind the anonymity, and said he’s handled several calls that might have stopped a depressed student from harming themselves.
“Some calls amount to nothing, or someone called in haste or anger, or things aren’t as bad as they think. But sometimes it’s a case of, where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he said.
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.