Oakland Unified launches safe school texting program

A program launched this month by Oakland Unified lets students send anonymous text messages to school officials when they hear of a dangerous situation.

The district adopted the text-a-tip" program primarily to help students alert school police officers about weapons brought to school, but supporters say it can also be used to alert administrative staff about bullying, drug use or suicidal behavior.

"I'm trying to leverage whatever I can with technology to make our campuses safer. If this technology saves one life then it is worth it," said Pete Sarna, police chief for Oakland Unified School District.

Oakland Unified rolled out the program last week at six high schools at an annual cost of $2,000, said a representative of a company that set up the system.

Under the program, each school is given a five-digit code that students or parents can text for any situation they feel requires school administrative or police intervention. The school provides its own awareness campaign to publicize the number, but the key selling point is that students are promised total anonymity, said Jeremy Konko, CEO of GuestAssist, a Houston-based technology and communications firm.

"If you're getting bullied it's much more discreet to send a text message than make a call where people can hear you," he said.

The text message is routed to campus security officers or school staff through a text message or email. Officials can follow up with the sender to gain details about the offense, such as the location of a planned fight.

"The main thing is simplicity. We can have them up and running in 24 hours and people trained in 15 minutes," said Konko.

He said GuestAssist has been mostly using the technology at live sporting events to break up fights in the stands and only recently offered the service to schools.

The costs are based on district size and cover the service and technical support, which includes routing the text messages to the campus mobile phones and emails of administrators, he said. Districts don't have to purchase any hardware.

Program supporters argue that texting is the primary communication method among middle and high schoolers, and the immediacy and amnesty of the service makes it an ideal violence prevention tool.

"My big message is that we're communicating with the kids on their level," said Shawn Edgington, a parent and author of The Parent's Guide to Texting, Facebook, and Social Media.

"The reality is that children are going to bring their cell phones to schools; they will hide them and use them," she said. "If we have an emergency that requires anonymous text, I say bring the cell phone to help."

To find out more, click here: http://www.guestassist.net/

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