Six years after 26 children and educators were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut by a troubled 20 year old, a group of parents is stepping up its efforts to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"Sandy Hook Promise," a non-profit anti-gun violence group formed after the attack, is training students around the nation to spot warning signs in other would–be shooters, and to anonymously report concerns through a mobile app. The Say Something Anonymous Reporting System soft launched earlier this year, and is now rolling out in earnest; SHP says the total number of school districts using it will jump from about 150 to more than 600 next month.
The app allows students to type in a description of what they saw or heard, and attach photos, videos or screenshots for example, of a social media post. Tips get triaged at a national call center by professional crisis counselors, who can immediately involve local police and/or school officials. The counselors can also message back and forth with the tipster.
Students say they're more likely to report their concerns on an app, than to go in person to tell a teacher or administrator. Success of actually preventing school shootings is difficult to measure, but school officials say they are already benefiting from the tips coming in.
Federal data show how much is at stake. In more than 80 percent of school shootings someone else knew about the plan, but didn't say anything, a U.S. Secret Service study found. In nearly 60 percent, more than one person knew. And it was almost always kids.
"I literally think about it all the time ... [how] Sandy Hook could have been prevented and my little Daniel could be at home with me where he should be," says Sandy Hook Promise co-founder Mark Barden. The 2012 shooting that killed his 7-year-old son, was one of those cases in which red flags were abundant. The shooter's preoccupation with violence can be traced back to grade school, and steadily worsened through his teenage years, when he became a loner obsessed with mass murders, according to a report by the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate.
"I mean that kind of story keeps playing itself out, and we just keep knocking head against wall, [saying] 'the warning signs are there, the warning signs are there,'" Barden sighs. "We know it's preventable."
SHP uses private funding and government grants to provide the app to schools for free, along with training and education.
At The Morgan School in Clinton, Conn. earlier this month, SHP trainer Debra D'Angelo gave the high-schoolers a kind of crash course in recognizing red flags, that might not be explicit.
Threats can be opaque, D'Angelo explained, like: "They will regret they ever met me," or "You'd be better off without me."
"It doesn't actually say the words 'I'm going to fill in the blank,'" she explains. "But these are threats, because the words intend harm."
She implores students to be vigilant and report whatever doesn't seem right, whether a comment overheard in the school bathroom, or a post seen online. The idea is to change cultural norms around reporting, much like it was changed around drunk driving.
"You are our eyes and ears," D'Angelo tells the students. "We need you."
Being able to report anonymously – and privately-- with a smart phone app – is a game changer for students like Becca Arribas Cockley.
"I think a lot of people don't want to be like the snitch of the school," she says.
Fellow senior Daniel Radka agrees. A few years ago, he heard a kid threatening to shoot up the school, but was too afraid to tell a teacher.
"I didn't want it to get back to the kid that I had reported him," Radka says. "And I didn't want other people to know because it was kind of a joke, and I didn't know if that was cause enough to tell anyone."
Eventually, Radka says he told his mom, who told the school. (As it turned out, it was not a real threat.) But even telling a parent is hard for some kids, Radka says. Having an app is way more in kids' comfort zone.
"It's kind of like the difference between making a phone call and text," he says. "You don't have to deal with that person face to face. You don't have to talk to that person. You say what you want to say, and then you're off the hook."
Students are also encouraged to use the app to report someone who may be at risk of hurting themselves, something Arribas Cockley says she's seen in several classmates, including one who was posting "Life sucks right now" and "I feel like no one cares."
"She did it multiple times, and I was like I was like 'Ooooh. This doesn't seem right,'" Arribas Cockley says.
Kirk Carpenter, superintendent of the Aztec Municipal School District in New Mexico says tips about suicide concerns are among the most common, and have already proven invaluable. In one recent case, crisis counselors were able to connect with a student who was planning to take her life, and engage her in a series of messages through the app. Carpenter was also able to see the dialog in real time.
"I remember exactly where I was watching this take place, and it still gives me chills because a life was saved that night," he says.
School officials helped identify the student, and local police were immediately notified.
"Authorities were able to knock on the door and take that student from home before any act that could have been fatal," Carpenter says. "And they were able to get that student into the hands of people who could help her."
SHP says tips have also come in about shooting threats, and police have intervened before any violence took place.
"It's hard to measure prevention, and prove a negative," says Barden, but the app is "absolutely" preventing violence.
The "Say Something" app is one of more than a dozen now on the market, some costing several hundred dollars a month.
In Michigan, the OK2SAY app is state-funded. Officials there say they too have prevented shootings, for example, after someone reported that a student posted a photo of a pistol on social media with the caption "don't go to school," that student was arrested and suspended.
Michigan is one of about eight states that now have or are about to launch statewide reporting systems.
"I would say that the interest in school-based tip lines is really taking off," says Michael Planty, senior center director at RTI International, who is researching best practices for tip line systems through a grant through the National Institute of Justice. "There's good reason to believe that they're promising," he says.
But so far, the successes have been more about stopping suicides and bullying, than foiling school shootings. Professor Sheldon Greenberg, from the Johns Hopkins School of Education Division of Public Safety Leadership, says that's unlikely to change.
"We shouldn't raise the expectation too high." he says, "In regards to active shooters, the dots aren't always going to be put together as easily as people think they could be."
Even when a solid lead is reported, the response can easily fall short — as happened earlier this year in Parkland, Fla. Authorities did get tips about the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but failed to adequately follow up.
"There's nothing more heartbreaking," says Susan Payne, who founded Safe2Tell, an anonymous tip line developed after the Columbine shooting in Colorado, that's now also a mobile app.
Payne worries some new systems being peddled to schools may not follow best practices. For example, she believes tips should be fielded by law enforcement, who have the tools to investigate more quickly than crisis counselors.
"We assume everybody is [... ] going to have this right, they're going to know how to do this," she says, "but this is an emerging field." She says it's easy for schools to get caught up in the frenzy to get a system in place as soon as possible. Sometimes schools will be eager to "check the box" to say they have a tip line in place, Payne says, "but not all systems meet the standard of care."
Some also question whether anonymous reporting apps are too prone to abuse. Systems that offer confidentiality instead, can deter prank reports, and intentionally false accusations that are just meant to get another kid in trouble. They would also make it easier to hold offenders accountable.
But others worry that eliminating anonymity will have a chilling effect on reporting, including Clinton Public Schools Superintendent Maryann O'Donnell.
"I'm not worried about being swamped with [frivolous or malicious] calls," O'Donnell says. She'd rather have too much information, than too little. "We prefer to know and be able to work through it with kids."
Superintendent Carpenter agrees that the rewards of anonymous systems far outweigh the risks. He says responders are well trained to vet the tips that come in.
"We've had a couple hoaxes," he says. "And if some kids misuse it, we can deal with that. But the bottom line is that we have seen nothing but great benefit out of this."
Ultimately, the benefit cannot be measured only by how many planned shootings may have been foiled, advocates say. No one will ever know, for example, if a case of bullying or depression that was nipped in the bud, might have otherwise escalated into the next national tragedy.
"I just think about all these little towns that we don't know the names of, because a horrible tragedy didn't happen there," says Sandy Hook Promise's Mark Barden. "I get goosebumps just talking about it, because it's the tragedy I will live with for the rest of my life, and it's also the tragedy now that other families won't have to live with."