The University of Nebraska Public Policy Center is partnering with Boys Town to oversee the administration of a new $1.28 million grant from the United States Department of Justice to evaluate and expand the Safe2HelpNE school reporting system.
Safe2HelpNE is a centralized reporting system for Nebraska schools that was approved by the Nebraska Legislature in May 2021. It became available to schools that opt in Sept. 1, 2021. Currently, 34 school districts in the state are enrolled.
When approved, lawmakers were assured the system would be voluntary for schools’ participation, and that reports would not be part of students’ permanent files or academic records. The initial funding came from the Nebraska Department of Education.
The system can be used by students, teachers and others to report concerns about someone planning to harm themselves, others or property. Reports can be made through the Safe2Help app, on the Safe2HelpNE website, or by calling 833-980-7233.
The grant will evaluate the success of the system, as well as track data of its use and expand the team at Boys Town, which fields the reports. The evaluation of the system could be key to winning future support from Nebraska lawmakers.
“The Legislature wants to have some proof of its effectiveness after three years, and I hope we’ll have data that proves its effectiveness,” said Denise Bulling, senior research director at the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center.
The Public Policy Center is set to work with Boys Town to gather and analyze the anonymous data generated from the system, Bulling said. The data and schools’ experiences will be used to adjust training and create new resources for school threat assessment teams, she said.
Safe2HelpNE is new, but evidence-based threat assessment training has been going on in the state for several years. Mario Scalora, director of the Public Policy Center, is a nationally recognized expert on threat assessment and violence prevention. He, Bulling and Jolene Palmer, with the Nebraska Department of Education, regularly conduct training sessions for schools.
Mike Dulaney, executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, and Palmer worked to get the anonymous reporting system approved by lawmakers.
“I’m really confident that when we start seeing numbers, we’re going to be very pleased that it’s doing as intended,” Dulaney said. “We’ll know things are working as they should when tragedies, major or minor, are averted.”
The Safe2HelpNE reports are routed by Boys Town to a school’s trained threat assessment team for validation and response. Teams include an administrator, staff member, security representative, and mental health professional.
The goal of the reporting system, Bulling said, is not discipline but de-escalating crises, stopping threats before action and minimizing interaction with law enforcement.
“An example might be if someone is making veiled threats,” she said. “The team looks at all the things going on in a student’s life and wraps support around the student. The student gets the support they need so they’re no longer experiencing those feelings or no longer a threat.”
During a pilot program by Boys Town and Omaha-area law enforcement agencies and schools, 81% of calls bypassed law enforcement, Williams said. Reports fielded included suicide threats, drug abuse, bullying or cyberbullying, depression, and threats against property.
Supporters say Safe2HelpNE can save lives. Ralston Superintendent Mark Adler told lawmakers he believes an anonymous reporting system and a trained school crisis team would have prevented his son’s 2016 suicide after he experienced cyberbullying.
Safe2HelpNE recently recorded its 1,000th contact. Dulaney said the pandemic has fatigued school staffs. He thinks more districts will join the centralized system when officials feel they have the capacity to send more staff through training. Dulaney said he wants to see more schools take advantage of the reporting system and, in the process, build a case for its continued operation.
“With all the tragedies that occur, it seems every year, this is not a problem that is going away,” Dulaney said. “Student mental health is an ongoing issue. We’re not doing enough, but this is one step.”