Texting, the New Anti-bullying Technology

I heard a poignant story the other day in the grocery store. A woman I knew from my years as PTA president stopped me by the bananas. We don't see each other much anymore and took this opportunity to fill each other in on what our respective children were up to. She told me that she and her husband had pulled "Sarah," their 15-year-old daughter, out of the public high school. "I know it's going to be really hard for her to start all over again in her sophomore year at someplace new," the mom said apologetically, "but we had to do it. Sarah was being bullied and she felt she had no good way to report it that wouldn't make the problem worse."

Indeed, many estimates of the amount of bullying American teens are subjected to are staggering. If you count verbal, physical and cyber-bullying together, some national surveys show that 70 percent or more of all American teens report having experienced bullying at some point in their middle or high school careers. And in an equally scary statistic, a recent survey found that "...in about 85 percent of bullying cases, no intervention or effort is made by a teacher or administration member of the school to stop the bullying from taking place."

Now, we need to take these statistics with at least a grain of salt, if not a shaker-full. It's hard to know how well these national surveys of teens are done without looking carefully at the wording of questions and how the sample was drawn. We don't really know how "bullying" was defined or what kids meant when they said they had experienced it. We don't know in the second case whether the 85 percent statistic refers to kids reporting that their schools make no serious effort to intervene in cases of bullying or if it's the school teachers or administrators, themselves, reporting that their efforts lag significantly. In fact, a 2012 industry survey conducted by the School Safety Advocacy Council found in a fairly large national survey that 70 percent of those educators polled felt that their school did have a policy that "effectively addressed bullying issues." Some states even require school districts to have developed and enacted anti-bullying policies, like here in Massachusetts.

But even if we quibble over the exact figure or exact definition, it's clear that there's a lot of bullying still going on. And it's clear that much of it happens in the context of schools.
There are plenty of anti-bullying programs out there, some of which have been around a while and have been thoroughly vetted. In some cases, their effectiveness has been evaluated and appropriate revisions have been made to make them better. And some schools are taking new, innovative and pro-active approaches to combat bullying. One of the newest anti-bullying measures being adopted by schools is the use of texting.

This makes a lot of sense. Texting is a huge part of the American teenagers' lexicon. A recent Pew Internet poll found that 63 percent of the teenagers in their sample recount communicating with friends by text every day. In a Wall Street Journal.com video, Shayndi Rice reports that 13- to 17-year-olds say that the No. 1 reason they get a phone is to text, and that they send an average of about six texts an hour while they are awake. So some savvy schools are starting to take advantage of this technology and how frequently teens use it.

Blackboard is one company that's developed applications for two-way texting to assist schools with information dissemination and with issues of safety and security. "We realized that this technology, which is so widely used by kids, could be developed for use by K-12 school districts in their anti-bullying efforts," says Jennie Breister, product marketing manager for Blackboard. "The ability to use texting in a documented, specific environment, forward information to appropriate officials and keep it confidential seemed an important application."

Tip Txt, originally developed in Great Britain, has been adapted and developed by Blackboard for use in K-12 schools. Kids can text reports of bullying or questions about reporting it, the information is screened and handled by school officials. Blackboard is currently offering the application free to every school district in the country; the only cost involved is the fee to set up a dedicated texting line. To date, 175 districts have signed up for the service.

Perhaps the largest school district in the country to sign on with the Tip Txt technology is the Boston Public Schools. According to Jodie Elgee, director of the BPS's Counseling and Intervention Center, "We wanted to meet students where they were. We felt that using texting was a way to both cut down on our response time to reported bullying incidents and also to empower kids." Elgee says that last year, when the BPS had just a phone option (bullying hotline) for students to report incidents, of the 350 or so calls they received, many were from parents or caregivers or students from out of district (some as far away as from California), inquiring about resources. Elgee believes that enabling students to text their concerns will prove to increase reporting from the students the school district is directly tasked with helping.

Certain words will trigger an immediate response. Elgee says that anything having to do with safety will be dealt with instantly. The number of reports and the turnaround time between receipt of a text and investigation/resolution of the issue will be what the BPS look to as metrics of success. "Boston has made a major commitment to deal with bullying," says Elgee. "What we are doing goes above and beyond what the law requires."

Lauren Dyke, senior manager of communications for Blackboard agrees:

"The ultimate measure of success would be that the amount of bullying goes down. Until then, removing the barriers for students from reporting these instances is so important. There's a lot of power in that. We're passionate about using mobile technology to alleviate some of these challenges facing schools today."

I don't know if being able to text an instance of bullying to the appropriate source at her school would have helped "Sarah" at all. But it might have. In any case, it seems worth the 160-character effort to try.