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Graffiti, vaping, sextortion, drugs: A new school app can report school safety issues

The Los Angeles Unified School District has a new crime app.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is encouraging parents, students and staff to use a new app to anonymously report school safety concerns.
(Los Angeles Unified School District )
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Graffiti. A broken window or compromised fence. Vaping in the bathroom. A sextortion threat. A student who talked about bringing a weapon to class.

Confronted with increasing demands to make Los Angeles Unified campuses safer, the district is promoting a new app for students, parents, staff and community members to anonymously report these and other types of concerns that fall short of emergency police response. A second app — which functions strictly to report an emergency — is available to school employees.

Reports from both apps will be sent to school police and identify the location of the sender. Officials insist the apps will provide responsiveness and simplicity, rather than adding redundancy or technological confusion.

The apps were showcased during a Board of Education meeting that drew demonstrators outside district headquarters who called for the elimination of school police — a sign of the ongoing tension within the school system on how best to deal with school safety.

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The app available to anyone is called Los Angeles Schools Anonymous Reporting or LASAR and is designed “to increase community focused public safety in and around our schools.”

Upon receiving a report, the school police watch commander “will triage the reported incident and determine the necessary resource to dispatch,” according to the staff report.

“The ability for the community, for students and the workforce for example, to automatically real-time relay, in an anonymous way or not, potential threats to a student, to a school, is critically important,” said L.A. schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho.

There is no specific limitation on what could be reported, but this is not, for example, the forum to discuss grades or academic issues.

The safety apps are among four applications being rolled out, including one that allows parents to access student records from their phones. The other allows families and employees to look up general information and make requests. Board member Nick Melvoin expressed concern about going from too few mobile options to a confusing too many.

He was assured that, even with four apps, the functionality was simpler than what families and employees face today in attempting to communicate in the right way to the appropriate person. And that the effort would evolve.

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Board president Jackie Goldberg said she wanted to make sure a human was available to help people — and received some reassurance.

In an interview, district teachers union Secondary Vice President Julie Van Winkle said she had concerns about turning first to police, especially for nonemergency issues.

“If a student is having a nonemergency problem, they don’t need the police to be called in,” Van Winkle said. “Even in many emergencies, I would say that there are different ways that we can handle it rather than right away calling the police — because sometimes that will escalate a violent situation.”

She also questioned the priority of developing such apps when, she said, many classrooms lack working phones that would allow teachers to communicate directly with the office.

“We need to prioritize an investment in our facilities and investment in staff that can support our schools and keep them safe, and then we don’t need to be calling in police,” said Van Winkle.

Van Winkle took part Tuesday in a rally organized by groups calling for the elimination of school police. The demonstration included about 50 participants, who also called for enlarging the Black Student Achievement Plan, expanding mental health resources for all students and developing nonpolice-based safety alternatives.

Activists challenge L.A. Unified superintendent’s support of school police, as well as school board members who reduced the police budget but did not disband the agency.

Feb. 1, 2023

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In support of their agenda, the groups presented results based on a survey conducted by student activists at their schools. According to the survey, 87% of Black students feel like they are benefiting from the achievement plan, but 49% feel their schools lack suffient mental health resources. The survey was conducted by students at 100 schools and collected more than 2,300 responses, including about 400 from Black students, according to protest organizers.

District officials said they do not know the extent to which other K-12 school systems use an anonymous reporting app — they are not aware of other examples. They added that USC and some other colleges have a similar application. A “unique component” is making the application available to community members, they said.

The app allows for taking photos or videos and includes geolocation, enabling police to know about where the incident was reported from. The user can note if the reported incident took place elsewhere.

The second app is for a situation where an active assailant situation is in progress.

The application is designed to work only within school district boundaries. Like the other app, it automatically detects the location of the user. To activate an alert, an individual presses a button for three seconds.

This app is, in essence, an internal, alternative 911 system, available only to staff. Students reporting an emergency on their phones will still be dialing 911.

One feature allows users to text information about their emergency situation, something not possible on a 911 call. An emergency alert goes straight to the top of the watch commander’s queue along with an audio alert.

Officials said other K-12 districts are already using such an emergency app. Some colleges provide a wearable panic button.

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The apps were developed by Kokomo24/7 with a $123,000 federal grant and will cost about $93,000 a year to maintain, said Senior Operations Director Alfonso Webb.

The head of the administrators union, which includes principals, said both apps had positive potential.

“I think having apps that will allow the staff to report disturbances or any criminal or disruptive behavior will allow safety to actually be improved,” said Nery Paiz, head of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

Both apps were in development before the arrival of Carvalho just over a year ago. The school chief has made them a component of his strategic plan as well as his campus safety strategy.

Carvalho has yet to present his comprehensive school safety plan.

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