Education

Iowa City schools to add text message tip line about school violence

Nationally, threat warnings aren't always heeded

Students can receive a link to an online survey to reporting bullying by texting a code to Iowa City Community School District in Iowa City on Tuesday, Mar. 13, 2018. (Illustration: Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Students can receive a link to an online survey to reporting bullying by texting a code to Iowa City Community School District in Iowa City on Tuesday, Mar. 13, 2018. (Illustration: Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Iowa City students soon will be able to use a text messaging platform to report incidents or behavior they think may lead to school violence.

The district launched a text hotline in August for tips about bullying and sexual harassment. Following recent school shootings, including the Feb. 14 shooting in which 17 students and faculty were gunned down in Parkland, Fla., Iowa City decided to add a text hotline for concerns about school violence.

“We’re building it out right now,” said Kingsley Botchway, equity and engagement director for the district of 14,400 students, and an Iowa City Council member.

A national school walkout is scheduled for Wednesday as a memorial to victims of school shootings and as a push for gun restrictions. Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and many other Eastern Iowa students are on spring break this week and won’t be in school to walk out.

Warnings about potential threats don’t always prevent violence.

Before the Parkland shooting, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office had received more than 20 calls for service about alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz or his family, Time reported. The FBI also got a tip in 2017 about a comment Cruz made on YouTube about becoming a “professional school shooter.”

But a student tip may have thwarted a Vermont school shooting.

On Feb. 15, police arrested an 18-year-old who had made threats against his former high school, NPR reported. Angela McDevitt told her school guidance counselor about disturbing texts from her friend, Jack Sawyer, who had cheered the Parkland shooting and called it “natural selection.”

Police later found Sawyer has just purchased a shotgun and kept a journal he called “Diary of an Active Shooter,” NPR said.

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The Iowa City school district has received 45 texted tips since school started in August, with more than 40 of those about bullying and a few about sexual assault or sexual harassment, Botchway said. When students text @bullying or @safeschools to a five-digit number provided to students, they receive a quick, mobile-friend survey asking them about the incident or behavior they want to report.

“They can be completely anonymous,” Botchway said. “We might not be able to investigate it officially by calling people in for interviews, but we could shift supervision.” For example, if a student reports being picked on in a particular hallway after lunch, the principal could send more staff to that location.

Botchway passes on every texted tip, he said. Most go to the school principal, but Botchway sends other tips to police if the reported behavior happened on social media or off campus, he said. Botchway does not know if any of the reports have led to arrests, but some texts have resulted in investigations that led to school discipline.

“We want follow-up on every one of them,” Botchway said.

Botchway and Kristin Pedersen, community affairs coordinator for the district, got an unexpected shout out from Monica Lewinsky, an anti-bullying advocate, at the Qualtrics user summit in Salt Lake City last week. The Iowa City district employees had presented at the conference about the text hotline.

“Was asked to stand with Kristin Pedersen and received applause from 7000 people for our school district’s work!” Botchway tweeted Thursday.

Botchway and Pedersen are writing the questions for the school violence survey now, he said. The district has not yet announced a launch date for this feature.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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