Schools realizing safety hotline was dropped by state more than a year ago
BY KIM ARCHER World Staff Writer
Thursday, February 07, 2013
2/07/13 at 7:20 AM
The state Education Department a little over a year ago let expire a contract with a company that had provided a safe school hotline to all Oklahoma school districts for years.
But many districts didn't know it until recently.
"We were surprised to learn from the Safe Schools hotline company that the state Department of Education had chosen not to renew the statewide contract as there was not any indication or communication from the SDE," Jenks spokeswoman Bonnie Rogers said.
It has left many area school districts looking for a similar service with the cost now falling squarely on them.
"We're looking and pricing. There is not a lot out there for us to use," said Tara Thompson, spokeswoman with Broken Arrow Public Schools.
The anonymous hotline was available for students and parents to report threats, bullying and other school-safety issues at any time, day or night.
"I would think most if not all schools advertised this safety net in past years. We did," Sand Springs Superintendent Lloyd Snow said.
Because his district received no information about the program this year, he said "we just assumed something had changed."
School districts considered Safe Schools Helpline a valuable prevention and intervention tool.
"One of the nice things about Safe Schools is anyone can call and remain anonymous," Thompson said. "People are more comfortable with that. That's the true beauty of that service."
In the past, the Oklahoma State Department of Education would send a letter to district superintendents each year to inform them the Safe Schools Helpline contract had been renewed, spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton said.
"So when we didn't renew, we just didn't send that letter out," she said.
Jenks school officials learned the service had been dropped earlier this school year when Bob McCurdy, president of Columbus, Ohio-based Security Voice, which runs the service, sent an alert about an urgent situation that had just been called in.
Rogers said McCurdy told her then that the Oklahoma contract had been canceled.
"I immediately thought of the thousands of magnets we have all over the district publicizing that number," she said.
Broken Arrow discovered the service had been discontinued in similar fashion.
"We had a fax come through that we couldn't respond to," Thompson said. "We were able to follow up as best we could."
Only after contacting the state department several times were they told the contract was not renewed.
Pemberton said the decision to cancel the hotline service was a cost-cutting measure.
Over 12 years, the Oklahoma hotline got 7,400 calls, a number state officials believe didn't justify spending $256,667 in fiscal year 2011, she said.
"We just felt we weren't getting the bang for our buck," Pemberton said. "We felt like we could save that money and administer those calls ourselves."
The state now relies on prevention specialist Joy Hermansen, who is paid $39,000 a year to take those calls. Forty percent of Hermansen's salary is paid by the Education Department and 60 percent by the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Calls are routed to Hermansen via the agency's customer service desk.
When Hermansen is out working with school districts, another staff member may answer the calls or the caller may leave a voice message, Pemberton said.
"She's very quick to respond," she said.
However, if the situation is life-threatening, Pemberton urges people to call 911.
She said she is surprised districts didn't know the contract was gone as it expired June 30, 2011.
Said Rogers: "I don't want to mislead and say they were getting hundreds of calls, but we would get 10 or 20 a year. My response to them is, if it saves one life, it's worth it."
Whom to call
People can now call the state Education Department's Customer Service desk (405-521-3301) to report school violence, bullying and threats. Those calls will be routed to the department's prevention specialist.
However, if the situation is life-threatening, state officials encourage people to call 911. People are also encouraged to first work with their school district before reporting threats to the state.
Safe Schools Helpline
Operated by Columbus, Ohio-based Security Voice, Inc. the Safe Schools Helpline provided service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
People could anonymously report potential threats, and the appropriate school district would immediately receive an alert.
Within 24 hours, the district was required to provide the service a detailed explanation of its response so the anonymous caller could find out how the situation had been resolved.
Original Print Headline: Schools get word: Safety hotline was dropped
Kim Archer 918-581-8315