A bill in the Legislature would create a new way for students to anonymously send information about threats, potential mass shootings or other life-threatening situations at their schools.
OLYMPIA — Kevin Parker was 25 and hiding under a cafeteria table at Columbine High School. Then he was running up the stairs with hundreds of students, worrying about being shot, about ever seeing his wife.
“I didn’t think I was going to get out of the school that day,” said Parker, who was visiting the Colorado school on April 20, 1999, as a volunteer for Young Life.
Parker, now a Republican member of the Washington State House, says the attack carried out by two Columbine students, and school shootings around the country since, have left him determined to stop the violence. He hopes to encourage students, who might hear of a rumor or know of a planned attack, to let someone know.
His House Bill 2823 would create the Students Protecting Students Program, allowing youth to anonymously send information about threats, potential violence, criminal activity or other life-threatening situations. The program would fall under the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
The bill follows the example of Colorado, post-Columbine, when the state implemented Safe2Tell, a program run by a national nonprofit that gathers anonymous tips and passes them on to school officials and law enforcement. Trained staff are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I don’t feel we need to reinvent the wheel,” said Parker, of Spokane, “but to replicate a good wheel that already exists.”
The idea: Make it less intimidating for a student to report potential violence at his or her school. Students are often the most informed when it comes to their peers, but find reasons not to come forward.
“Think of the bill as a backup plan,” said Parker. “If a student feels uncomfortable talking to an adult in person, they can make an anonymous tip.”
Under the bill, the only time a tipster’s identity would be revealed is if a judge reviews evidence alone in chambers. Or, of course, if tipsters felt comfortable identifying themselves.
Media would not have access to information and tips. For Parker, this is paramount, mainly because he doesn’t want to risk sensationalizing horrific situations. In particular, he said, “domestic terrorists thrive on name recognition.”
Detective Patrick Michaud, a spokesman with the Seattle Police Department, noted that people can call 911 anonymously to report something. But, he added, the program Parker has in mind likely would not interfere with police work.
“We want to be able to stop these things before it happens,” Michaud said. “If that comes at the cost of you remaining anonymous, that’s fine, we don’t take that personally. We’d rather fix the issue than have to clean up afterwards.”
From Safe2Tell’s first tip back in 2004 through December 2014, the organization has received 13,146 tips. The three most frequent types concerned bullying, suicide and drugs or alcohol. During that time period, the program received reports of 381 planned school attacks, and twice that number of tips about sexual violence.
Safe2Tell doesn’t currently keep track of false reports, but its new system will have that capability. Spokesman Roger Hudson said in an email the program has had “very few false reports and none that were unexpected,” given the age groups Safe2Tell reaches. “All were researched and resolved quickly,” he added.
Currently, OSPI keeps track of behavior reports that involve things such as drugs, alcohol and fights that do and don’t lead to injuries. It also records how often weapons are brought into schools.
OSPI does not have data on threats received, however. The reports are all after the fact.
The costs of the Students Protecting Students Program are being calculated.