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Michigan’s OK2SAY Program Shows a Rise in School Violence Tips | #schoolsaftey

This article was originally published in Michigan Advance.

Michigan’s school violence prevention reporting system received 7,415 tips in 2022, annual numbers from Michigan State Police said, a 19% increase from the year before.

The reporting system, OK2SAY, allows students to report if they hear or see something that poses a threat or could pose a threat to students. The categories with the most tips are, bullying, suicide threats and drugs.

It’s not altogether clear why the number of possible threats is increasing within Michigan, Justin Heinze, director of the National Center for School Safety (NCSS), said. 

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“Is that because the true incidence of violence or concerning behavior is going up, or are we just doing a better job at getting students and parents and whomever else to recognize some of these concerns and make those reports? That’s a difficult thing to kind of distinguish,” Heinze said.

After the Oxford High School shooting in Oakland County in November 2021 where four students were killed, OK2SAY tracked a 2,709% increase in tips for December than in December of 2020.

The Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office noted a significant uptick in school threats within the county after the Oxford shooting, and again after the shooter pleaded guilty to the killings last November, said the office’s Chief of Administration Betsey A. Hage.

Although more than half of states have some form of anonymous reporting for students, OK2SAY is feeding information to study what the outcomes of the tips are, Heinze said.

“Trying to help those who are going to be using these systems or responding to these tips prepare for the kind of tips that will be coming in is a big thing that we’re interested in learning more about,” Heinze said. “A vast majority of students now have a system like this that they can use, but we don’t understand really well, I think from at least a research perspective, how students use these systems.”

Sometimes dozens of tips can come in for the same “incident,” as OK2SAY refers to singular events. OK2SAY not only tracked what agency or organizations incidents were referred to, but also what happened after it was referred.

In 2022, technicians sent information about 3,066 incidents to school officials and 787 incidents to law enforcement, with other groups being alerted at smaller numbers, according to the 2022 report.

In outcome reports from schools and local law enforcement, OK2SAY shows tips filed that led to school operations being disrupted 20 times across the state, from school closures to lockdowns, to evacuations.

OK2SAY’s report says 26 tips involved the seizure of weapons and 42 involved the seizure of alcohol or drugs.

In looking at the rise of tips,  Michigan School Counselor Association Executive Director Sarah Dickman points at the compounding hurdles students have been navigating over the last few years: The global COVID-19 pandemic and a national rise in gun violence within schools.

“We see students still struggling with the learning loss due to COVID, but also, they lost a lot of social emotional support during that time, as well,” Dickman said. “We’re seeing students that are struggling in that area and I think that’s reflected in some of the data that we’re seeing with the OK2SAY program.”

When it comes to violence within schools, whether it’s bullying or a school threat, if students don’t feel safe in their environment, it affects their ability to learn, to have appropriate relationships and manage their own emotions, Dickman said.

The conversation surrounding mental health for students has come to the forefront of lots of peoples’ minds as the pandemic exacerbated existing holes in how students are supported to succeed, Dickman said. Organizations like the Michigan School Counselor Association hope to see more student support staff roles being funded within schools.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald announced in September her office had assembled a team of national experts to investigate preventive measures to combat gun violence to then recommend solutions for communities.

McDonald, in a written statement to the Michigan Advance, said her office commends all of the brave individuals who spoke up when they felt something was not right by submitting tips to OK2SAY and she looks forward to protocols from  the Commission to Address Gun Violence being released to the public.

“I formed the Commission to Address Gun Violence to work diligently towards producing  a meaningful protocol to reduce gun violence, which includes effective and trusted reporting systems,” McDonald said in the statement. “The final protocol will include recommendations to strengthen and expand Michigan’s confidential reporting system OK2SAY to avert attacks because locking kids up and bringing them into the criminal justice system is not the answer to preventing the next shooting.”

Hage, who also vice chairs the commission, said it’s the group’s intention to release final protocols for the public’s viewing in the fall.

The National Center for School Safety, which operates out of the University of Michigan, launched a new Michigan School Safety Initiative this summer which is working create online tools for schools to connect with violence prevention programming and allow schools to get connected to specialists that could visit schools throughout the state to create tailored safety strategies, Heinze said.

Some solutions that have been implemented in the wake of school violence are subject to debate like active shooter drills, metal detectors or the presence of law enforcement within schools, and will be examined by members of the initiative, looking into how solutions actually impact the school community, Heinze said.

“There are all these sorts of downstream effects that can happen when students are forced to think about, ‘well, is my building a safe place or not?” Heinze said. “If you look at the data broadly, most schools are very safe places relative to other environments. So we try to talk about schools in that way. … Violence does occur, sometimes heinous violence occurs, and we’re trying to reduce that number down to zero, but generally speaking, schools can be safe and productive.”

Dickman echoed that interest in understanding how solutions to the problems of violence impact students, but added that there may be benefits to more palpable preventative efforts like active shooter drills.

“I think that sometimes the adults worry about doing [active shooter] drills because we worry about the effects that it has on students psychologically, but what we actually hear from students is, they want to feel prepared because they feel that it’s something that could … happen at their school, so it brings a sense of calm to them knowing that their school is well prepared with a plan,” Dickman said.

And conversations about what actually will give kids the confidence they need to speak up when they see something and explain why some safety measures are in place so the students can understand why they’re there will ultimately include students in the conversation that allows them a bit of autonomy in solving the problems of school-based violence.

“There does seem to be solid evidence now to suggest that they are in good positions to speak up and say something when they have the opportunity and when they have the means to do so and that can prevent violence,” Heinze said.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: [email protected]. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

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