Editor's note: This story, created by Bella Guerrero and Viktoria Kangas of The Oglethorpe Echo in Lexington, Georgia, is part of the Solutions Story Tracker from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. Louisiana Inspired features solutions journalism stories that provide tangible evidence that positive change is happening in other places and in our own communities — solutions that can be adopted around the world.
Students' concerns regarding mental health and wellbeing haven’t gone unnoticed by Georgia's Oglethorpe County School System.
The county implemented Anonymous Alerts, a digital platform for students and parents to communicate with school personnel in December. It allows individuals to report suspicious activity, bullying or other student-related issues.
“If they feel like a friend is hurting, or is in need of something, someone to talk to, they're gonna let somebody know,” superintendent Beverley Levine said. “This gives another way for them to do that.”
Access to the system can be found on any school’s website, on every student computer desktop, by QR codes around the schools, in the superintendent’s Patriot e-newsletter and in the app store for Apple and Android.
“Kids these days are far more comfortable on their cell phones than dealing with stuff like this in person,” Levine said.
Submissions are assessed by the system then immediately sent to the appropriate personnel, such as a principal, vice principal, counselors or social worker, who decides how best to handle the situation.
For instance, if a student submits a concern about school safety, drugs or weapons, the alert is delivered to administration at that school, as well as the social worker of the school system. If an alert has to do with someone harming themselves, it goes to the school administrators, the counselors and the social worker.
After an alert is submitted into the system, the proper people will be notified through an email and a text that allows communication in real time. This allows the student or parent to be present with whomever is handling their concern.
“I do know for a fact that it seems to be getting harder and harder for our youth to grow up without the extra burdens of social media influence to be perfect and peer pressure concerning vaping,” said Julie Holloman, Oglethorpe County Primary School teacher and president of Oglethorpe County High School PTO.
How it’s working
Levine had seen other school districts using the same system. This, she said, gave her confidence to adopt it with the goal of creating a safer and more transparent atmosphere.
Prior to implementation, Levine often heard concerns about students being bullied and how incidents would go unreported due to the stigma of coming into the office.
“Some students are not quite comfortable coming to tell an adult that either they're having issues or a friend of theirs is having issues,” she said. “They want their school to be a safe place, and so they will warn folks if there's an issue.”
There were 66 submissions between December, when the Oglethorpe County School System started using the Anonymous Alerts system, and the end of April. Fifty-five of those were from high school students.
OCMS had received eight, OCES had received one and OCPS had received two submissions.
“Most of the time, the ones we've been getting are caring concerns for a friend or somebody doing something they shouldn't be doing,” Levine said.
The system is only monitored between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the school year, so it’s important that students and parents know their submissions aren’t monitored 24 hours, seven days a week.
And although there have been submissions, it doesn’t replace counseling or in-person conversations with school personnel.
Rather, it has added an avenue for parents and students to communicate.
“As the county grows, I hope that people feel more comfortable making those concerns through the anonymous portal,” Holloman said.
Levine explained how often emails could be lost in a spam or junk folder, making it difficult for a student to reach out or parent to get in contact with whomever they need at the school. The system removed the guesswork of who is appropriate to contact and handle a situation by doing it upon submission.
“It's just sort of another way for us to keep tabs on school safety and make sure that you know kids have a way of reporting things and making sure that nothing falls through the cracks,” Levine said.