Reporting a bullying incident will soon be almost as simple as sending a text message for students in Toronto’s Catholic school board.
Starting Wednesday, about 30,000 teenagers at the board’s 32 high schools can use a smartphone app to report bullying, cyberbullying, threats, concerns about a classmate’s self-harming behaviour or other safety issues. And they don’t have to identify themselves.
The Anonymous Alerts app “is another tool for students in those situations where people don’t feel comfortable reporting in person,” says Nadia Adragna, a high school principal and member of the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s safe schools department.
“We’re a 21st-century board. We wanted to offer another tool that is familiar to students . . . that they can access to promote a positive school climate.”
The app, to be unveiled Tuesday at a safe schools symposium, can also be used by parents who discover unsafe incidents and want to alert the school principal and ensure prompt action, she said.
It’s a solution welcomed by students like Jahiem Henry, a safe schools ambassador and Grade 10 student at St. John Paul II Catholic Secondary School, one of three high schools that piloted the app last fall.
“A lot of students are very happy about it,” says the 16-year-old. “They find it’s so much easier to go online and report something instead of face-to-face, because once it’s face-to-face it becomes so much more personal.”
He says his peers found the app easy to download and use, even though only five incidents were actually reported during the two-month pilot.
The process involves a few simple clicks of the button that includes identifying the school and principal, then choosing from a list of categories to report the incident such as abuse, harassment, bomb threats or depression.
As soon as a student clicks “submit” the school principal and vice-principal receive notifications by text message and email.
“It gives students that reassurance that someone’s going to be there, someone’s going to be listening and going to know,” says Henry.
The big selling points for the board, which looked at several options over the past couple of years, was the technology ensuring reports are anonymous and a feature allowing students to upload images and video with their report, which can be crucial in bullying or cyberbullying episodes.
“The message I receive as principal is completely encrypted and remains anonymous unless the student chooses to identify himself or herself,” says Adragna, principal at the St. Martin Campus of Monsignor Fraser College.
“And that’s really important to young people.”
Student trustee and Grade 12 student Karina Dubrovskaya said she was excited to learn about the app at a TCDSB board meeting and hopes students will use it. She cites a recent safe schools student survey which found many students had experienced or witnessed bullying, but about half didn’t report it. The app will make it easier.
“Just the fact that you can take out your phone and if you see something or are thinking about it later, you can send in that information, big or small,” she says.
Dubrovskaya says it often takes a major incident to get a student to report it to a staff member, which can lead to normalizing less traumatic bullying. Being able to alert an adult early could help change that, she says.
While such apps have been referred to as “whistleblower” technology, that’s not a phrase used by the school board, which considers it a tool to promote safety. It can also be used by a student concerned over someone struggling with mental health issues or at risk of harming themselves.
Adragna acknowledged a risk of false reports but says that’s no different than with other reports delivered in person or by phone.
Anonymous Alerts founder Gregory Bender says data since his company launched the app three years ago shows about 97 per cent have turned out to be credible.
The Toronto Catholic board signed a three-year contract with the company, based in White Plains, N.Y., but did not disclose the cost to the Star.
Anti-bullying apps have exploded in U.S. school boards over the last few years and Bender says his app is used in 32 states. He designed it after the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre.
Schools also have access to analytics to look at trends and impact of the reporting system.
The Catholic board is the company’s first Canadian client, though Bender said he has spoken with several other boards in the last few months. The Catholic board is the only Toronto board to use this technology.
The Hamilton Wentworth District School Board is among the few already using anonymous reporting apps. The board began piloting TipOff, an app to report bullying, in 2013 and it’s now in place at all its schools.
Of the thousands of messages received, many were tests or considered too minor to pass along, but more than 1,524 were passed along for investigation to the schools involved, board spokesperson Robert Faulkner said in an email.
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