National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 County police create app geared to school safety

By Charles Taylor

A school shooting in Baltimore County, Md. on opening day prompted the police chief of neighboring Anne Arundel County to ask what his department was doing to ensure students’ safety.

Lt. J.D. Batten Jr. is the school safety unit commander for the Anne Arundel County Police Department. He said Chief Larry Tolliver asked him what he’d like to do that hadn’t been tried before, urging him to be as creative as possible.

 “I said I wanted to try to get us as school resource officer personnel more involved with our students in the social media environment, the Internet-based environment and the textual environment,” Batten said.

Less than two months after the Aug. 27 shooting, which the victim survived, Batten unveiled a new smartphone app Oct. 15 that students can use to anonymously report bullying, threats of violence or other safety concerns. It’s called AACoPD Speak Out.

“Kids will say things online in any kind of Internet-based medium or text medium that they just won’t say in person,” Batten said. That’s not always a good thing since those media also can be used for the very behavior — such as cyberbullying — the app is designed to help address. “But there’s a flip side to that same coin. We believed that there was probably the chance that they may say something positive or preventative about a friend in trouble if they didn’t actually have to pick up the phone and talk to a live person,” he added.

According to a recent Nielsen survey, 58 percent of teenagers between 13 and 17 years old own a smartphone.

The free app currently works on Android devices, and Batten expects an iPhone version to be available soon. In the meantime, a mobile Web app is available that doesn’t need to be downloaded.

 It allows users to quickly email School Resource Unit (SRU) officers and supervisors with any questions, concerns or notifications about at-risk behavior.  Students are being encouraged to “speak out” when they or a friend are being bullied; when they know someone needs help or when they know someone is threatening others online.

Batten and two school resource unit sergeants screen the incoming messages; armed with this information, SRU personnel can work proactively with school officials and other stakeholders to try to head off dangerous behavior.

“Teenagers want to do the right thing,” said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel schools, “they just don’t want other people to know they’re doing it. We view this as another tool in the toolbox of communications, and it’s a tool that meets students where they are using technology they’re already comfortable with.”

Bob Yatsuk is the school division’s supervisor of school security. He said the app complements a toll-free anonymous tip hotline the school system has had for the past six years. “This is just a continued effort in the process of cooperating with our local agencies,” he said.

Using an “added-value business mindset,” the app was developed in-house at a cost of “less than $1,000,” Batten said, by Cpl. William Davis, a tech-savvy school resource officer who is the School Resource Unit’s go-to guy on social media issues. Batten said he initially considered using Facebook or Twitter to solicit tips from students, but Davis recognized them as more challenging media for maintaining anonymity.

While the app clearly states it is not an emergency response system, Batten believes it provides students a way to provide information to authorities that might otherwise have never been disclosed.

“This is not a 9-1-1 immediate response system,” he said. “We also say clearly we cannot assure you 100 percent confidentiality, but we’ll do everything we can by law to assure confidentiality.”

In addition to students’ ability to send tips through the app, the app can to push messages to users. It also includes links to various health, counseling and social services provided by the county and schools.

Batten said the app has already been downloaded about 200 times since its launch, and he’s received an inquiry about it from Kansas City.

“I’ve told people I’m not sure what direction this is going to go. I’m not 100 percent sure that if we build it they will come,” Batten said. “But I do know that if you don’t try, you’ll never find out.”