See It, Text It

Boston implements a cool new tool for schools. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Michael O’Neill

TipTxtIt takes a lot of courage to stand up to a school bully. For schools, the key is helping our students know that we will stand right beside them when they do.

Here in Boston, we believe we are leading the way with policies, procedures, trainings and protocols that protect our students from bullying. Our education and outreach efforts are in place in every one of our 128 schools and teachers say it is making a big difference. Two years ago we established an innovative anti-bullying hotline that has already received more than 500 calls and tips.

A major challenge, however, remains the problem of encouraging students and parents to speak up in the first place. Bullies are frightening enough: why should someone risk drawing attention to themselves in an effort to put an end to it?

This is where technology comes in. There is plenty of research to show students are more comfortable having a sensitive conversation over email or text messaging than over the phone or in person. This is why, this fall, the Boston Public Schools partnered with Blackboard to launch TipTxt – an upgrade to our existing Anti-Bully hotline that accepts text messages. It automatically responds with a series of questions to engage a student in a short but effective conversation, then immediately forwards the information to our highly trained bullying prevention and intervention team.

This technology allows us to meet students where they are and in a format with which they are comfortable. Because nearly half of our students speak a language other than English at home, a texting option may be an easier way for them to communicate confidently – and confidentially – with us.

What’s more, nearly every call we have received so far to our existing voice-based anti-bullying hotline has come from parents and caregivers – not students. We believe the text-based service will lead to more direct reporting from students themselves, which would be faster and potentially much more powerful.

Even better, TipTxt is free to the District. Blackboard is our existing automated messaging provider, and the company has told us it will offer the technology to any school district that would like to use it. This was an easy choice for us in Boston – we already have highly-trained staff ready to respond to reports of bullying and, for us, launching TipTxt has simply been a matter of embracing an additional tool.

Now the hard work begins: reassuring our students that they never need to fear a bully in school, because we have people here to help – just a text message away.

Michael D. O’Neill was elected Chair, Boston School Committee on January 7, 2013 and his current term expires on January 2, 2017. He is a former board member of Boston Public Schools School-to-Career Planning Committee. He has an MBA in Entrepreneurial Studies from Babson, is a Boston College graduate and lives in Charlestown. Write to: moneill2@bostonpublicschools.org

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