Hoopeston Area's new app lets students report bullying anonymously

Hoopeston Area's new app lets students report bullying anonymously

HOOPESTON — How can the voiceless be given a voice?

That's a question Hoopeston Area School District officials had been wrestling with, according to high school Principal John Klaber.

Officials know that for every report of bullying or harassment they receive, numerous others go unseen, unreported by students due to "shame or a fear of getting in trouble or being labeled as a 'tattletale,'" Klaber said.

It was with that in mind that district officials this year implemented use of "STOPit," an app that allows students to report incidents of bullying anonymously via phone or computer.

The result: by mid-semester, nearly 200 incidents had been reported — 140 at the middle school and 40 at the high school.

"Any bullying incident is one too many, but what we were doing (was) we were just trying to look for more layers, and this was a great, logical step to do next," Klaber said.

Previously, the district had established a district-level bullying prevention committee, touted the rollout of a 24/7 crisis text line for students and promised to show its middle schoolers an anti-bullying movie earlier this year — efforts all designed to stave off bullying issues in the district.

Superintendent Suzette Hesser also encouraged professional development lessons that trained teachers in trauma-informed practices, which encourage staff to view students in the context of external factors outside the classroom that affect either that student's learning or behaviors.

"There is no one-size mold that fits everybody," Klaber said. "We're trying to add as many layers to the onion as we can."

After downloading the "STOPit" app, each user is assigned a random number instead of a name to protect their identity while making a report. Once the report is complete, an official is supposed to respond via the chat option to collect data and determine whether a report is "credible."

"The success that we've had at the middle and high school allows us instant, real-time feedback to try to delve deeper," Klaber said. "If a student says, 'Susie is getting bullied,' we can ask where and who is doing it. The anonymity of a person is never in question."

Middle school Principal Michelle White added that parents are able to use the app too, with the information they submit being just as likely as anyone else's to go through collection, response and, if viewed as credible, spark an investigation.

If it sounds like a system ripe with potential for abuse, Klaber said the responsibility to both follow-up with students and weed out less-than-credible reports "falls on us as admins and an administrative team."

"There are some people who want to test the system," he said.

STOPit Solutions, the company selling the reporting system to school districts across the country, is also quick to note that "in the first few weeks" of usage, some students send messages that "lack actionable information," but that's not something they consider a negative.

"They want to send something in to make sure it really works," said STOPit Director of Success Teresa. "Is this really going somewhere? Is someone really responding to this? They put a soft feeler out to see, 'OK, if I use this, is someone going to be there to listen to it?'"

To sell the system to districts, STOPit says that "5 percent of all reports submitted are what we'd classify as false." For users that might abuse the system, STOPit allows administrators the ability to block them from using the app at all — which wasn't something that had happened by late October, according to Klaber and White. Determining the success of the app is a mixed bag, they said, but on one hand, usage of the app at all is its own success.

"We're finding out information that we otherwise might not have known," Klaber said. "In that way, I think we bring about a lot of success."

It's also easier, in theory, for high schoolers to use the app than it is for those in middle school: At the high school, students are allowed to carry their phones with them during the day. At the middle school, they're not allowed to have phones on them.

"That's why we pushed the web-based side of it," White said. "They have Chromebooks with them throughout the day."

And because the middle school is where the majority of the reports have originated so far, officials aren't worried about a disparity in access. White noted that at her building, the "notes" feature of the app is used consistently to build a sort-of case file that officials can use to track student behavior.

"There are a lot of options to compartmentalize," she said. "If you have a high-flying student who may be bullying multiple people, you can track that."

But gauging what students think about the app is the challenging part, Klaber said.

"With the anonymity, it's tough to find where students are having success," he said.

Regardless, both he and White agree that "STOPit" is only one facet of the district's response to student mental health and bullying issues.

"The app is just another layer we added to make our students feel safe," he said.

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