Florida Keys

Trouble on campus? Keys students can now text anonymous tips to cops and principals

Monroe County Schools Superintendent Mark Porter, left, and Text Tips creator Shawn Verne on May 23, 2018, announce a new texting program that gives students a way to anonymously report campus troubles such as bullying or suicide threats.
Monroe County Schools Superintendent Mark Porter, left, and Text Tips creator Shawn Verne on May 23, 2018, announce a new texting program that gives students a way to anonymously report campus troubles such as bullying or suicide threats. gfilosa@flkeysnews.com

Florida Keys school administrators are counting on students' penchant for texting to contribute to on-campus safety.

School Text Tips, a program developed by a Sugarloaf Key parent, allows for students to text anonymous complaints or give tips about bullying, violence, suicide threats, drug possession and other teen troubles.

"Students already provide us a wealth of information," said Key West Police Lt. Kathleen Ream, who is in charge of all the school resource officers placed at certain schools. "Some aren't comfortable talking to teachers or an SRO."

Students' phone numbers are blocked and the district never learns their names, said program creator Shawn Verne, 50, who has children in public schools. The numbers could be unblocked, though, if police begin an investigation stemming from a tip.

So far, School Text Tips is only at Sugarloaf School, a K-8 school, and only in grades 5 through 8. It will be installed in the district's elementary schools.

"It's the only system in the world that has this," Verne said of the text-based program.

Verne, who owns the tech firm CityHost411, offered the program for free to Sugarloaf School and Key West High School. But the district and charter schools will have to pay $1.80 per student per calendar year to use the program.

The district has a total of about 8,700 students in 16 schools.

The program, which took six years to develop, will roll out at schools this summer and become a district-wide program this fall.

It's well worth the investment, said Superintendent Mark Porter, who unveiled the program Wednesday at the administration offices on Trumbo Road in Key West.

"School Text Tips is a very unique and innovative solution to enhance our school safety on each and every one of our campuses," Porter said.

So far, only one of the district's charter schools, the high school Keys Collegiate Academy, has bought the program. It will be up to the others whether they want to use it.

"The kids all have phones, they could use them with their thumbs in their sleep," Verne said. "We basically set up a way to have them use a straight phone number, just like they would to any of their friends as a contact, versus downloading an app or having to remember keywords in order to use the system."

Each school will have its own phone number and database of tips.

Administrators and school resource officers will sift through the tips, Porter said, and can text students back. So far, the use at Sugarloaf is low.

"This system allows the schools to have direct communication from the students to let them vent it out and tell them what's going on so they can try to react and try to prevent something bigger from happening," Verne said.

Rather than create an app, which requires data and wi-fi, Verne stuck to texting, which he said is typically available to students and travels quickly.

Officials didn't give out any of the tipline numbers Wednesday.

"This is its own community," Verne said. "We're not going to be publishing these phone numbers."

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