Two police officers in Hermiston, Oregon, banged on the front door of a family’s home on a Sunday evening in November 2017. When the father answered the door, confused about why the cops were there, the officers quickly brushed past him, telling him they’d received a report that his teenage son was about to kill himself.
One of the son’s classmates had submitted a report to SafeOregon, a school safety tip line run by the state police, warning that the teenager was suicidal and that he had shared a picture of himself with a belt around his neck. SafeOregon sent two officers to check on him.
“The dad had no idea about any of this,” said Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston, one of several law enforcement and school officials who described the incident to NBC News. “He was out in the living room and had no idea what was going on.”
The officers rushed to the teen’s bedroom and found him sitting in a chair with a belt wrapped tightly around his neck. He wasn’t breathing. Derrick Williams, one of the two officers who responded, said he pulled the teen out of the chair and removed the belt, before performing CPR and a sternum rub, a paramedic maneuver that involves pressing the knuckles of a closed fist into someone’s chest. The teen came to and was taken by ambulance to a hospital. He recovered and received outpatient mental health services, police said.
“They basically saved his life because of this tip from a student,” said Tricia Mooney, superintendent of the Hermiston School District.
Across the country, as officials look for ways to prevent school shootings, states have started tip lines like SafeOregon — websites, apps and phone numbers that let students anonymously report concerns about classmates. But in many places, reports of students self-harming or feeling suicidal have far outpaced the number of threats against schools, according to annual reports compiled by state agencies, forcing communities to confront a different kind of crisis.
Since SafeOregon launched in January 2017, it has received 540 reports of a suicidal student, compared to 278 reports of a threatened attack on a school. Pennsylvania’s Safe2SayPA took in 2,529 reports related to self-harm and 2,184 related to suicidal thoughts in its first six months last year, while threats against schools accounted for 607 reports. Nevada’s SafeVoice tip line, launched in 2018, collected 371 suicide threats, 350 reports of self-harm and 248 threats to a school in its first year. In Wyoming, suicide threats were the most common report to the Safe2Tell tip line in 2019, with 239 instances submitted, compared to 45 reports of planned school attacks.
In the aftermath of mass shootings at schools in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, school districts and lawmakers have poured billions of dollars into efforts to prevent another one. Much of that work has focused on fortifying campuses, adding panic buttons and bulletproof glass, and hiring more officers in schools.
But it’s far more likely that a school will lose a student to suicide than see one die in a mass shooting on campus. Five people were killed in a school shooting in 2017, and 30 in 2018, according to NBC News’ count. The number of children who took their own lives nearly doubled from 2007 to 2017, when there were 3,008 suicides among people ages 10 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Psychologists and counselors say these figures, and the data from the tip lines, should be a wake-up call to a far more likely threat that has not received the same urgent focus.
“School violence is not our only concern,” said David Lillenstein, president of the Association of School Psychologists of Pennsylvania. “We also have a bigger concern and that’s with mental health and mental well-being. Stronger locks don’t prevent a suicide.”
‘I don’t think I understood the magnitude’
At first, police and school officials in Hermiston were skeptical of SafeOregon, a statewide initiative approved by the Oregon legislature. Edmiston, the police chief, said he initially viewed it as another mandate dumped on local law enforcement. Hermiston High School Principal Tom Spoo feared the tip line would be inundated with bogus reports. But after the November 2017 incident, Spoo said, “I thought, ‘Damn, this thing is going to work after all.’”
SafeOregon operates like many school safety tip lines. Once students submit a tip, whether through a call, the app or the website, a dispatch center reviews whether it’s an emergency and forwards it to police, a handful of school administrators, or both. Spoo has become used to receiving phone calls in the middle of the night warning that a student is in danger of hurting themselves.
“I knew of the mental health issues that we face in this area, and maybe even across the country, but I don’t think I understood the magnitude until you start taking those phone calls,” Spoo said.
The tip line has led to multiple interventions that may have prevented suicides, officials say. In one incident, described in a SafeOregon annual report, a crisis team visited a student’s home and discovered that she and her sister were being neglected, after a friend reported that the student had messaged her about suicide. Another student who talked about wanting to “blow her brains out” was connected with counselors after someone reported her comments through SafeOregon.
“The number of reports we get is saying that it works,” said Capt. Tim Fox, of the Oregon State Police. “The Hermiston incident says that it works.”
Teens turn to texting
A key element that makes these tip lines successful, officials say, is that students don’t have to make a phone call or talk to anyone in person.
“Teens today worry about how others see them and are often afraid of being called a ‘snitch’ or fear retaliation for reporting a tip,” said Lily Brown, 16, a high school student in Roseburg, Oregon, who is a youth advocate for the tip line, helping to spread the word. “SafeOregon allows students to report tips in complete privacy.”
In Pennsylvania, 90 percent of tips come through the smartphone app, according to Brittney Kline, director of Safe2SayPA. She credits the tips with preventing multiple students from taking their own lives, including one attempted suicide that was interrupted by police. The Nevada Department of Education held focus groups prior to launching its tip line and found that students said they’d be more likely to reveal their feelings through text, said Christy McGill, director of the department’s Division of Safe and Respectful Learning.
At least 10 states now run school safety tip lines — Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wyoming — and an anonymous reporting system is also available to districts nationwide from Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit started by parents of school shooting victims in Newtown, Connecticut. Last month, Iowa’s governor proposed creating the state’s own version.
Many are following in the footsteps of Colorado, which launched its tip line, Safe2Tell, a few years after the Columbine school shooting. Susan Payne, a former Colorado Springs detective, modeled it on Crime Stoppers, an anonymous hotline that people can call to report suspicious activity. Officials from more than a dozen states contacted Payne after the Parkland shooting to learn more about Safe2Tell as they considered launching their own tip lines, she said.
Suicide threats have been the top concern flagged on Colorado’s Safe2Tell each year since 2013. And the number of tips related to suicide and self-harm has been on the rise, from 421 in the 2012-13 school year to 3,668 in 2018-19.
“We don’t even realize we’re in the middle of an epidemic of youth suicide in this country,” Payne said.
A growing challenge
From 2007 to 2017, the percentage of teens who said they experienced major depression grew from 7 to 13 percent, according to the CDC.
A majority of those who carried out mass shootings at schools have dealt with mental health issues such as depression, suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2019 study funded by the Department of Justice. Most suicidal people are not homicidal, yet research has shown that a majority of teens who attacked schools had previously threatened or tried to die by suicide, and about half expected to die in their attacks.
The challenge schools face is helping someone who’s starting to feel depressed long before they consider hurting themselves or others. Sometimes a student is too ashamed to admit they need help, or they’re concerned about exposing a problem at home, said Matthew Wintersteen, director of research in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Scott Martin, a Republican, is co-sponsoring a bill to require students at public schools to get a mental health screening each year, just as they’re required to get a physical. This way, Martin said, if any flags are spotted, the school can connect the student with counseling services.
“We can’t talk about school safety without also talking about mental health,” Martin said.
Suicide plans hidden in Google Docs
Beyond tip lines, security software offered by companies such as Gaggle and Securly, installed on school-issued Chromebooks to monitor students’ activities, has also turned up reports of suicidal students. The software is considered problematic by privacy and civil liberties advocates, but both companies claim their products have saved the lives of hundreds of students. Bill McCullough, Gaggle’s vice president of sales, said that while many school leaders buy the software to prevent school attacks, they “woefully underestimate” the children with mental health issues who will be flagged.
The school district in Wichita Falls, Texas, installed Gaggle three years ago to make sure students didn’t look at stuff they weren’t supposed to online. Since then, the software has helped stop at least four potential suicides, according to Superintendent Mike Kuhrt.
“We heard stories about preventing suicide attempts and other self-harm,” Kuhrt said. “We didn’t know we’d find them that quick and that many of them.”
In one incident, Wichita Falls school officials received an alert from Gaggle about a student’s Google Doc. When school administrators pulled up the file, they initially thought the document was blank. But with help from Gaggle, they realized it contained an elaborate plan of how the student intended to kill himself; perhaps to conceal his plan, he had changed the font color to white.
Kuhrt views software like Gaggle as a necessity to keep up with ways that students communicate. For instance, students will open a Google Doc, share it with their friends, and then use it as a makeshift chatroom, something administrators hadn’t realized. Kuhrt has also seen students type things on their Chromebook using language they hope will get flagged by the automated monitoring system, as a way to quietly report a concern about a friend.
“They’ll write it on a Doc, knowing Gaggle will see it and then their friend will get help without them being considered a tattle,” said Shad McGaha, chief technology officer for Wichita Falls schools.
Partly because of what the school saw through Gaggle, Wichita Falls hired a new counselor last year for each of its three high schools.
Since SafeOregon went live, the Hermiston school district has also added more counselors and hired a social worker, said Mooney, the superintendent. The district also drafted plans for what to do after a suicide or an attempted one, including bringing in crisis teams. The procedures were put to the test after two student deaths, a homicide and a suicide, in recent years.
“We’re just too practiced,” Spoo, the Hermiston High principal, said. “We know exactly what we’re going to do, the rooms where kids go to grieve, what staff members read to all the kids about it — we’ve actually gotten pretty good at it, and it’s kind of sad, but to me it’s part of our world today.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.