'It's Preventable': Sandy Hook Parents Promote App For Reporting School Threats

The Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit group formed after the 2012 Connecticut shooting, is training students to spot warning signs in other would–be shooters and to anonymously report concerns through a mobile app.

Courtesy Sandy Hook Promise

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Courtesy Sandy Hook Promise

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.”

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Nancy Wilson, Legendary Vocalist And NPR 'Jazz Profiles' Host, Dies At 81

Grammy-winning singer Nancy Wilson performs in 2003 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York during a concert titled “Nancy Wilson With Strings: Celebrating Four Decades of Music.”

Stuart Ramson/AP

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Stuart Ramson/AP

Nancy Wilson died Thursday after a long illness at her home in Pioneertown, Calif., her manager Devra Hall Levy told NPR. She was 81.

Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1937, Wilson has recounted in interviews that she started singing around age 3 or 4.

“I have always just sung. I have never questioned what it is. I thank God for it and I just do it,” she told Marian McPartland, host of NPR’s Piano Jazz in 1994.

She never had formal training but was influenced by Dinah Washington, Nat “King” Cole, and others. Wilson says she knew at an early age what she would do for a living.

During her decades-long career, Wilson performed jazz ballads, standards, torch songs, show tunes and pop songs. She told McPartland that she loves a song with a good story and good lyrics. A song that has a beginning, middle and an end.

After attending Central State College in Ohio for one year, she left to pursue music full time. She had been touring continuously in her 20s when she met saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. He suggested she move to New York and in 1959 she did. Many successful singles and albums followed.

From 1996 through 2005, NPR listeners will remember Wilson as the host of Jazz Profiles, a documentary series that profiled the legends and legacy of jazz. More than 190 episodes were produced. The Peabody-winning series is available as a podcast.

In the interview on Piano Jazz, McPartland described Wilson as a multi-talented entertainer. She didn’t just sing, Wilson made guest appearances on TV variety programs and acted in several TV series.

As Variety reports: Wilson may be remembered by millions of TV viewers who recall her 1974-75 NBC variety series, “The Nancy Wilson Show,” for which she won an Emmy. She was frequently a guest herself on the variety shows hosted by Carol Burnett, Andy Williams and Flip Wilson as well as acting on “The Cosby Show” and dramatic series like “The F.B.I.” and “Hawaii 5-O.”

The National Endowment for the Arts awarded Wilson a “Jazz Masters Fellowship” in 2004 for lifetime achievement.

In 1998, she received the NAACP Image award — having been active in the civil rights movement, including the 1965 march on Selma, Ala.

In 2011, she stopped touring following a show at Ohio University, but had hinted years earlier that she had thought about retiring.

The Associated Press reports that in 2007, when she turned 70, “Wilson was the guest of honor at a Carnegie Hall gala. ‘After 55 years of doing what I do professionally, I have a right to ask how long? I’m trying to retire, people,’ she said with a laugh before leaving the stage to a standing ovation.”

According to a family statement, Wilson did not want a funeral. A celebration of her life will be held later.

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ACA Sign-Ups Have Lagged For 2019. But What Does That Mean?

The deadline for signing up for individual health insurance coverage on HealthCare.gov ends Saturday, Dec. 15.

Patrick Sison/AP

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Patrick Sison/AP

Former President Barack Obama released a video earlier this week urging people to hurry up and shop for health insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchange.

“This year I’m giving it to you straight,” Obama says in the video. “It’s important to have health insurance in case, God forbid, you get really sick, or hurt yourself next year.”

No jump shots. No ferns. No memes. Not this time. I’m going to give it to you straight: If you need health insurance for 2019, the deadline to get covered is December 15. Go to https://t.co/ob1Ynoesod today and pass this on — you just might save a life. pic.twitter.com/8mHMsXGY0g

— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 10, 2018

Open enrollment ends in most states on Saturday and Obama makes the case that people can find a good deal on coverage if they shop around.

“Most folks can find coverage for $50 to $100 per month. That’s probably less than your cell phone bill,” he says.

After the video was released, there was a bump in sign-ups. But overall this year, enrollment in the individual market is moving more slowly than in previous years.

At the end of last week, just over 4.1 million people had chosen a health plan on Healthcare.gov, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the website. That’s about half a million fewer than at this time last year, an analysis by the advocacy group Protect Our Care shows.

“I hate to panic but I do think we’re going to come in low on the federal exchange, says Rosemarie Day, CEO of Day Health Strategies. Day was the founding COO of Massachusetts’ state exchange, which launched in 2006, long before the Affordable Care Act became law.

She blames the lower enrollment on the Trump Administration’s decision to slash the advertising budget for open enrollment. Outreach, she says, is crucial to making sure that people who need insurance know where and when to get it.

“The individual market is very, very volatile — because people are in and out of needing that kind of coverage,” Day says. “There’s always potential for new customers who may have really never paid that much attention to the exchange, because it wasn’t something that they needed. It wasn’t really on their radar until they did need it.”

CMS says it did some advertising on local TV and radio and print media, and sent out more than 600 million emails and text messages to potential consumers. Administrator Seema Verma has sent regular reminders about the enrollment period on Twitter.

“We know you may be busy shopping for holiday gifts, but don’t forget to shop for your healthcare coverage too! The 2019 Marketplace #OpenEnrollment deadline is this Saturday – Dec. 15th!” reads a Tweet from Thursday.

We know you may be busy shopping for holiday gifts, but don’t forget to shop for your healthcare coverage, too! The 2019 Marketplace #OpenEnrollment deadline is this Saturday-Dec. 15th! https://t.co/5wrBlB1k2o

— Administrator Seema Verma (@SeemaCMS) December 12, 2018

But it’s hard to say whether the fewer sign-ups this time mean fewer people will have insurance coverage in 2019.

Katherine Baicker, an economist and dean of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, says some Trump Administration policy changes, like eliminating the penalty for not having coverage, could depress sign-ups.

At the same time, the unemployment rate fell from 4.1 percent to 3.7 percent over the course of 2018 — the lowest level in 49 years.

Having lower unemployment is certainly correlated with having a lower uninsurance rate, Baicker says, because people who are getting new jobs are going to get insurance with their new jobs.

And some of those people may have previously bought insurance on the exchange.

It’s also hard to know how many people aren’t showing up on sign-up tallies because they are just sticking with the plan they have.

“People are slow to change insurance plans,” Baicker says, “especially if they’re happy with the plan they have.”

To answer those questions, a further breakdown of the total numbers will be available next year.

In Virginia alone, about 70,000 fewer people have signed up for an ACA health plan this year compared to last.

That may be in part because the state passed an expansion of Medicaid earlier this year, which will allow more adults to get coverage through that federal-state health insurance program. Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Daniel Carey says about 140,000 Virginians have enrolled in Medicaid, so far, as part of the new expansion; that’s only about half as many as the state expects to eventually enroll in Medicaid. Some of them likely had previous coverage through the exchange.

“Given the co-pays and deductibles in the exchange plans, Medicaid for the individual is a much better deal,” Carey says. “So if they do qualify, we certainly encourage them to enroll in Medicaid.”

In the end, the most important number of all is how many people end up with health coverage, Baicker says.

“If fewer people are signing up in the individual market because more people are getting insurance through their jobs, that may be a very good-news story for those people,” she says. “If fewer people are signing up through the exchanges because they’re going to end up uninsured, that’s a very bad-news story for those people.”

Consumers have until midnight Saturday to pick an insurance plan on HealthCare.gov.

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