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Tennessee school system cuts down on illegal activity with texting program

Blount County School District uses TipSoft for Education to collect incident reports from students

Located on the North Carolina border in eastern Tennessee, the rural Blount County school system has 20,000 students and four major high schools. The district is very socioeconomically diverse, and includes students living at the poverty level, some from wealthy households and many others in between. Tensions between these student populations can create a host of serious problems—including bullying, prescription drug abuse, and weapons possession.

“We were looking for a better way to get information from students about specific safety issues, particularly in the high schools,” says Sergeant Jeff Hicks, who oversees safety in Blount. “Students often don’t always communicate well verbally.” However, Hicks notes, students are familiar and comfortable with communicating electronically. TipSoft for Education, software from crime reporting, mapping, and analytics company PublicEngines, was the perfect solution.

TipSoft for Education allows students to use text messaging, web forms, or a mobile application called TipSubmit to provide timely information on cyber-bullying, potential violence, known drug transactions and other dangerous situations. Using the software, students can confidentially report tips about such concerns to school administrators.

At Blount, Hicks and several administrators receive text alerts on their personal cell phones as soon as a TipSoft message comes in, allowing them to take action before a dangerous event occurs. To help implement the program, PublicEngines provided webinar training and Q&A sessions with district administrators. Once the staff felt comfortable with the product, the district launched a full-scale marketing campaign to get the word out to students and parents.

“We held a press conference to spread information about the new program,” says Hicks. “We began receiving tip alerts before the press conference was over.” Along with the press conference, funding from a local health clinic allowed the school to create posters in the school and around the community to make the program known. PublicEngines also worked with Blount’s public information office on effective ways to engage the media. A digital billboard advertisement during sports games furthers community awareness.

TipSoft’s features, such as the ability for students to attach photos and video to their tips, are easy to use. “These skills are right in a student’s wheelhouse,” says Hicks. “They feel empowered to send immediate information because they know perfectly well how to use the technology.” Through TipSoft, the district has been able to get help for a suicidal student, as well as prosecute students engaging in illegal activities. In the first month, over 30 tips were received, resulting in several drug- and alcohol-related arrests.

Over 1,100 tips have been submitted since the spring 2010 launch. TipSoft also allows administrators to create a variety of reports, so Hicks and his team are now able to pinpoint the most common times for fights, drug transactions, and other dangerous activities. Since TipSoft has been so successful in the high schools, the program is now being extended to the Blount County middle schools.

“We are seeing a decline in illegal activity on campus,” says Hicks. “Students are too afraid to bring illegal goods on campus because they fear being reported by TipSoft.” Another benefit of TipSoft is its parent-contact capability. Hicks can send out alerts to all enrolled parents and members of the community, informing them of emergencies and emergency procedures. “Overall, it’s a great tool,” Hicks says. “TipSoft has made our schools safer.”

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