October 26, 2012 11:50:20 AM
More than 160,000 children missed school today. But though they can run, they cannot hide. Eventually, they will have to return to the classroom, where their tormentor waits.
Nearly 30 percent of the nation's middle school and high school students have been bullied, with one in three reporting weekly occurrences. And those are just the documented cases. The National Education Association estimates that two-thirds of all victims suffer in silence, too afraid or ashamed to come forward.
The Columbus Municipal School District is hoping a new initiative, slated to launch next month, will reverse that trend by making it easier for students to communicate with teachers and administrators, not only about problems at school, but also about problems at home.
The nationwide program, "Talk About It," allows students to send out a virtual cry for help via cell phone or computer. Students log into the system with their lunch ID numbers, then choose whether they want to reveal their identity or send an anonymous message to a teacher, coach or other trusted staff member.
To make initiating dialogue easier, students are provided with a drop-down list of common issues they may be facing. Except in extreme cases, their comments are kept private, but if a child is in danger of being harmed or harming someone else, school officials can identify them and take action, as they are often legally required to do.
State law requires that any time a child below the age of 18 reports that they are being physically or sexually abused, the Department of Human Services must be contacted. Failure to do so is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and/or one year in prison.
Advocates of the "Talk About It" program say it's a way to open conversations with teenagers who are often more comfortable with online communication than face-to-face discussions, especially about sensitive issues.
"In most cases, kids won't let administrators know what's going on because of fear of not being anonymous," said Michael Jackson, special assistant for public relations and parent involvement at CMSD. "They don't want to be seen as a tattletale or snitch. We don't find out a lot of things until it's too late."
The subscription-based service uses the same technology as the district's FalconBlast messaging and alert system, provided by Reliance Communications under the SchoolMessenger brand.
It opens a level of dialogue school officials rarely have with students, a member of Reliance's management team, Carter Myers, told Fox 35 News in Orlando. Sometimes children say things via email or text that they can't -- or won't -- say in person.
"They're revealing the most frank issues, and they span the spectrum," Myers said. "Yes, we see issues related to threats, but we see academic issues being concerns. We see pregnancy being concerns. We see depression. We even see children speaking up about personal issues like cutting and self-injury."
It's a teachable moment, he said. Once an adult gains their trust, it may be possible to bring the discussion out of email and into real life.
"We want them to walk through our doors, but if they're too afraid or they're too embarrassed, then we will never have that chance," he said. "We're creating a door. It's a virtual door, but it's a door through which children will readily walk, and then we have that opportunity to meet them face-to-face."
CMSD Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell did not say how much she expects the program to cost, but said Monday via email that she is committed to keeping students safe and is negotiating prices with a company consultant.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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