Speak Up for Your Friends.
Speak Up for Yourself.
Speak Up for the Voiceless.
Speak Up for School Safety.
See It. Tip It. Stop It.
Those are the messages being pushed out to teens in North Carolina encouraging use of the state’s new tipline, SPK UP NC: messages created by teens, for teens, to encourage use in the 42 schools that make up the pilot project area, and by the end of the 2016-2017 school year, in schools throughout the state.
A project of the North Carolina Center for Safer Schools, the app development grew out of school and community forums held shortly after the Center opened in 2013. A concern consistently raised at those meetings was a need for students to have a truly anonymous, standardized method of reporting concerns to school resource officers, school administrators and teachers. The Center invested 18 months in developing SPK UP NC, and students played a key role throughout that development process.
Kym Martin, executive director of the center and a participant in the National Institute of Justice Comprehensive School Safety Initiative Topical Working Group on State School Safety Issues meeting held in February 2016, says Center staff realized early in the process that unless students actually used the state’s new app, it would prove of little use to the state’s schools. In addition to creating a 25-member advisory group made up of students from throughout the state, the Center named Kolby Holland, an 18-year-old senior at South Lenoir High School and a Governor-appointed member of the Safer Schools Task Force, as its leader. The group’s members named the app, had input into product design and came up with their own marketing messages. (To view their testimonial promotional videos, including one from a girl whose classmate brought a gun to school, visit https://www.ncdps.gov/DPS-Services/Center-for-Safer-Schools/Resources/For-Students/spk-nc.)
“I have three teenagers, my deputy director has two teenagers, the project manager from our IT company has teenagers, and we all knew, because of what we heard from our families, that we had to be sensitive to what students would like and the ways in which they would use it,” Martin says. “We brought the students to Raleigh for the focus group meetings and tried to make it interesting for them with lunch and tours of the governor’s mansion and state government buildings. We really wanted to make the development process and the app itself as student friendly as possible.”
Part of that effort includes emphasizing that the purpose of SPK UP NC is not to get other students into trouble; rather, it is, as the student-created hashtag says, a way of giving a voice to the voiceless, Martin says: “Students can use it to help others who can’t speak up for themselves. They could potentially save a life if someone is considering suicide or self harm. A lot of students are afraid of saying anything, and we hope that when they see student-driven messages, they will realize SPK UP NC is a safe way to report.”
And the app not only provides a safe way to report in English, it also translates Spanish and other languages into English-language messages that SROs and administrators can understand. (The promotional campaign includes a Spanish-language testimonial video and a special outreach component for Spanish-speaking students and their families.)
Although it’s safe and anonymous, Martin does emphasize that SPK UP NC isn’t meant to replace relationships of trust students may have already developed with their SROs, guidance counselors or teachers: “If you feel comfortable talking with a trusted adult, you should continue to do that. This is just another way you can get information into the right hands.”
Because students can use SPK UP NC anonymously to put information into their hands, some school administrators initially voiced concerns they would be swamped with tips, but so far, the pilot schools have found the load to be manageable. A majority of the tips received through April 2016 focus on bullying, drug use and alcohol abuse, but enough tips have also come in about inappropriate verbal behavior between faculty and students to cause Center staff to consider developing training in that area. The Center is also developing guidelines and procedures for school districts that already have an anonymous reporting tool of their own in place, although those districts are also encouraged to consider switching to SPK UP NC. The North Carolina General Assembly has mandated that all schools must have some type of anonymous reporting in place by the end of the 2016-2017 school year, and for schools that choose to participate, SPK UP NC offers a number of key features:
“I have grand hopes for this,” Martin says. “I hope it will help students to be good citizens, and when they become adults, they’ll be community changers and world changers because they’ve learned that when you get involved, good things happen.”