School districts turn to mobile apps to keep students safe

More than 100 Texas school districts are using cellphone apps to address mental health and school safety. 

The premise is simple enough. It allows students, staff and parents to make anonymous reports, but teachers said it's already helping to save young lives. 

The CEO of Anonymous Alerts launched the app following the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 28 people, the majority of them elementary school students. 

Since then, school districts all over the country have signed on, including several in Central Texas.

There have been 250 active shooter situations in the U.S. between 2000 and 2017 according to data collected by the FBI, one-fifth of them at schools. 

That encouraged districts all over the nation to train students how to respond to an active shooter and exposed some vulnerabilities.

“When we were doing our active shooter situation, it became very apparent to us that we need to find an alternative way to be able to go on lockdown that didn't depend on the intercom,” said Krum High School teacher Tara Hartford. 

At Krum High School, staff looked for another way to alert students to danger. Cell phone app Smart Button answered their call with an instant panic button option. 

“She could put the school on lockdown and it'll send out a blast to everybody, including the first responders. So they would be able to locate and pinpoint in the school where the shooting or the threat was actually taking place,” Hartford said. 

“So they can instantly press the button for three seconds and initiate a lockdown from their phone for the whole school building in case there's an active shooter or a dangerous situation with students,” said T. Gregory Bender, President and CEO of Anonymous Alerts. 

Students suggested also finding an anonymous way to report mental health issues and bullying to school leaders and authorities. That's something that hit close to home for Hartford.

“Actually, my brother, he committed suicide shortly before all of this happened, and it just happened to be something that was near and dear to me to give these kids a way that they could talk about any issues that they were struggling with,” Hartford said, 

Since signing up for anonymous alerts, Krum High School has received 64 reports; two of them regarding threats of suicide, 20 involving drugs, alcohol and vaping, 13 for cyberbullying and two for sexual assault off campus. 

Hartford said because all of those issues can lead to deeper mental health crisis, addressing them early could be life changing. 

“We can give them a voice, a way to talk to others about their issues and their concerns. Then, if it saves one kiddo, then that's worth it,” said Hartford. 

Bender said Round Rock, Pflugerville, and Leander school districts are already using Anonymous Alerts. 

The cost is based on how many students are in the district and starts at around $500 per year.