Nebraska Legislature

Lawmakers are considering a proposal that would offer an anonymous school safety tip reporting line to all Nebraska K-12 schools.

The tipline, Safe2Help Nebraska, is an anonymous reporting line for students, parents and community members concerned about school or personal safety. The Safe2Help Nebraska pilot program launched on Jan. 6, 2020, for Douglas County K-12 schools. LB322 would make Safe2Help Nebraska available to all Nebraska K-12 schools.

The Douglas County School Threat Advisory Team, a group of law enforcement, school officials and mental health professionals, created the Safe2Help Nebraska pilot program in 2019.

Safe2Help Nebraska was modeled after Safe2Tell, a Colorado tipline created after the school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. Seventeen other states have reporting lines modeled after Safe2Tell, but those lines often go directly to police dispatch.

“What makes Nebraska unique is that we are having our calls go into a crisis counseling center within Boys Town where all of the other 17 states, it goes directly to law enforcement,” said Jolene Palmer, Nebraska school safety and security director in the Nebraska Department of Education.

Susan Payne, Safe2Tell Colorado founder, called Safe2Help Nebraska’s model “the next level,” according to the Denver Post.

The threat advisory team researched other tiplines and noticed that most tips were mental health and crisis-related. Many tiplines were housed in dispatch centers and would send law enforcement to respond to a call.

In some instances, a student may not need law enforcement. Instead, they may need to work with their parents to create a safety plan, or they may need to talk to someone who can de-escalate a mental health crisis. Utilizing crisis counselors also saves money by reducing law enforcement involvement. However, crisis counselors can still involve them when necessary.

“The goal by having a crisis counselor respond is that they can de-escalate the crisis in the moment and help determine what [callers] need right away,” said Diana Schmidt, manager of Safe2Help Nebraska at the Boys Town National Hotline. The Boys Town National Hotline has 20 staff members trained to respond to Safe2Help tips.

In 2020, Safe2Help Nebraska handled 81% of suicide threat tips without police intervention. The number one presenting problem for tips in 2020 was suicide threats, followed by drugs, bullying, depression, and information requests. Safe2Help Nebraska received 470 tips in 2020.

Students, staff, parents and community members can submit tips anonymously by phone call, the website or the Safe2Help Nebraska mobile app. These options allow tipsters to reach out in a way that’s comfortable to them. Once a tipster submits a report by a call, the app or website, a crisis counselor at the Boys Town National Hotline responds to the information and acts accordingly. They forward the information to the school and involve third parties as needed, such as law enforcement, Child Protective Services, school officials or parents.

For example, there were instances where parents thought their child was safe but learned that they needed medical attention upon following up with them. In other cases, there were faculty members that were having thoughts of suicide. They said something to a colleague, and then the colleague called the anonymous reporting line.

Anonymity is important because research showed that when tragic events happened, someone else knew about them. However, they may not speak up out of fear of repercussions or retaliation, according to Schmidt.

“We conducted school security assessments across the state the past couple years, and 99% of 6,225 students that we talked to said that they would be more likely to report a gun brought to school if there was a way that they could report that anonymously,” Palmer said.

Before the Safe2Help tipline existed, some schools had safe school numbers that went to staff members. These staff members often weren’t trained to talk to students who were having thoughts of suicide or mental health crises.

“Our school districts were also recognizing that they were receiving some of the calls…to deal with students in crisis, and they just weren’t equipped to handle that. So [they] very much supported the idea of utilizing Boys town as our triage center to take the calls,” said Denise Rieder, coordinator for the Douglas County School Threat Advisory Team.

With the Safe2Help tipline, schools can be more aware of struggling students or larger problems that may be happening within the school due to the tipline’s direct line of communication with schools. It is now a group effort between mental health professionals, law enforcement, parents, students and schools to resolve issues.

The Safe2Help Nebraska program in Douglas County has funding to run through December 2021, and the program may become available statewide through LB322.

“I cannot think of any administrator that does not have a heart for kids. And because administrators and school staff typically have a giant heart for kids, my guess is they will always do what they know can help kids,” Palmer said. “This is just one more… tool in the tool belt to help students.”

Senior journalism and advertising/public relations major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.