Anti-bullying campaigns are increasing across the nation. These are bringing to light the scale and impact of harassment in schools. Wrangell Public Schools just rolled out an app to help address that issue. Students can now anonymously report incidents of bullying.
Riley Hall is a behavioral health clinician at Alaska Island Community Services in Wrangell. He spends ten hours a week at the middle and high schools offering counseling. He says bullying is a common concern for his student clients.
“It can look like getting pushed around in the hallway, getting called names,” Hall said. “It can become more violent both, physically or sexually. And now, in this wonderful era of technology, people can send out damaging emails or Facebook posts or tweets.”
Hall is also part of the Wrangell Early Prevention Coalition. It is made up of coaches, pastors, all sorts of folks who work with youths. The group says bullying is an issue they want to tackle.
One way they are doing that is with a new app for students to report incidents of bullying.
The app is called Anonymous Alerts. The company that owns the app claims more than 5,000 schools are already using this product. Grants and school insurance are paying for the service.
Hall and school counselors can offer support to anonymous students entirely through the app.
“It’s not really they send it and they’re done. It’s more that it starts a conversation with a counselor at the high school,” Hall said. “And then we can follow up and ask if they are currently in danger, where is it happening. They can tell us a little bit about who’s causing the problem for them. And we can offer them help or support while they remain anonymous.”
Almost a quarter of high school students in Alaska say they were bullied at school in the past year. That’s according to an Alaska Department of Public Health survey released this year.
The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium conducted its own survey within Wrangell Public Schools. It got similar, but sometimes worse, results. Close to 40 percent of secondary students say they were bullied in the past month.
“Research is showing that there is a link between kids that get bullied at school and other psychiatric mood disorders like depression or anxiety. In extreme cases there can be trauma symptoms,” Hall said.
The same state survey reports a third of all high schoolers have felt hopeless consistently for two weeks or more. And a fifth of students have suicide plans.
“So bullying, there’s kind of the conventional wisdom that it’s a phase that kids go through, and they get over it,” Hall said. “While that is true for some kids, there is quite a bit of evidence that for some kids this can have some pretty long-reaching, devastating effects.”
In-person counselling sessions can curb the emotional impact. But Hall said the anonymous app gives students an extra layer of protection. Maybe they fear retaliation from the bully, and want to take all precautions. Plus, it can be awkward to go to an adult and tell them about personal stuff they’re going through.
“We’re not predicting that this is something kids are going to be using every day,” Hall said. “It’s more like a tsunami evacuation plan. In the case a kid really needs it, it’s there for them.”
Rick Dormer agrees. He’s Petersburg School District Secondary Principal. The district rolled out a similar system in 2013.
Dormer says in a small town like Petersburg or Wrangell, teachers and administrators have a good pulse on what’s happening at school. But it also means the communities are so close- knit, it can be hard to come forward with a complaint.
Dormer says school staff tiptoe around this. They won’t just go up to Johnny and say “we’ve gotten reports that you’re up to no good.” They just keep a closer eye on suspected students, seeing if they catch anything on their own watch.
“Then teachers can jump in and it isn’t, you now, someone ratted on their friend,” Dormer said. “It was ‘Hey I just saw you push that kid.’ Instead of the roundabout playing into the social dynamics or drama of kids, which is always tricky.”
Wrangell’s secondary school principal Bill Schwan said it’s too early to tell how his administration will address the reports. He’ll keep it on a case-by-case basis as they start coming in.