Keeping an ear out for what is bothering students

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2007 - 4:21 PM

A new online system at Westwood Middle School brings students' concerns to teachers' attention -- anonymously.

For the first time this year, students at Westwood Middle School can interface with caring adult staff members without going face to face.

During these first few weeks of school, administrators launched "Talk About It," an online program that allows students to consult with administrators or report dangerous behavior anonymously. The idea is to give students a nonthreatening avenue to help prevent school violence, circumvent bullies and get help quickly when they are stressed out or could pose a danger to themselves or others.

Westwood eighth-grader Bailie Johnson, 13, helped to train her classmates to use the system. She said she has heard positive things from students, a couple of whom have contacted staff members with good results.

"I think they like it better that it's anonymous," she said. "... They can talk to a counselor through the Internet instead of in person, which is better because they feel they're not being judged as much."

The program, managed by Mississippi-based AnComm Inc., had just rolled out nationally in 2005, and Price liked that it gave students a voice to affect the school's environment.

"Talk About It" grew out of a Houston nonprofit program that linked students and teachers online. By the end of 2006, the for-profit company was serving 30 schools in five states. At the start of the 2007-08 school year, more than 120 schools in 17 states, mostly on the coasts and in the South, are connected.

For a $3,000 subscription fee, schools get access to the AnComm system. Students can log in using an anonymous password (AnComm does keep records on students' identities) and choose from a menu of staff members in whom they feel they can confide. An e-mail alerts the staff member to check for a message. Once online, the student and the staff member can exchange messages in an attempt to resolve the student's problem.

AnComm also has a text-message component that students can use from their cell phones and PDAs if they don't have access to computers outside of school. But Westwood has not implemented the option for now because of the possible cost to families.

"Ultimately children do want to have a safe place," said AnComm President Carter Myers. "They don't want to have to worry about being beat up or not feeling safe going to the bathroom. It is so critical to let these students participate in as much a way as possible."

In a follow-up e-mail, Myers noted that in the Oct. 10 school shooting in Cleveland, other students reported that they'd heard the shooter make threats. In another case reported this month, a Norristown, Pa., teenager was arrested after a student reported that he had weapons.

The anonymity is key, Myers said.

"One simple universal principle we can all agree on is that children are the best source of information about what's going on in the school," he said. "A lot start with, 'I didn't want to say anything,' or 'I didn't want to get in trouble.' ... So then we need to figure out a way to make them feel comfortable coming forward."

School administrators can request to learn a student's identity in cases of immediate danger, but AnComm has the discretion over whether to hand it over. In one case in another state, a teacher tried to get the identity of a student who asked if he was gay. AnComm didn't release it.

At the same time, Myers said, AnComm helped to identify three suicidal students in Mississippi and Texas last year.

Every school that had the system last year renewed it for this school year, Myers said.

Students who abuse the system or make false allegations can lose access to the system.

'Welcoming environment'

No single concern prompted the launch, said Steven Price, school safety coordinator for the Spring Lake Park district.

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