Students can now text safety concerns

Laguna Beach High School students were given the ability this week to use their cell phones to confidentially report bullying, drug use, vandalism and other incidents.

The school district and police department partnered on the Text-A-Tip hotline that gives students a number to text if they are concerned about their classmates' safety.

The hotline is confidential, but not anonymous, and tipsters may receive follow-up texts for more details or clarification, according to a Laguna Beach Unified School District news release.

Every text and voice mail is logged. Administrators try to assess validity of the information.

School district staff members have talked about implementing the program for at least a year, said LBHS Principal Joanne Culverhouse.

"We had a couple instances at the high school that prompted us to put something in place for the safety and well-being of students," Culverhouse said.

Laguna Beach High assistant principals visited classrooms and spoke with students before the program started, Culverhouse said.

Provisions have been established to address false information or a misuse of the hotline.

The first step usually would be a conversation with the student, Culverhouse said.

Laguna is the latest Orange County high school to implement the program, which Orange County Sheriff's Dept. Sgt. Quyen Vuong started in 2011.

The program began in South County. A Laguna Hills High administrator wanted a way for students to alert staff about a potentially harmful incident without coming into the school office, Vuong said.

"Students have the desire to report, but [are afraid to] because they may be labeled as a snitch," Vuong said.

Vuong checked with schools throughout the United States on whether they had reporting programs.

Some did, at a cost.

"A few places had a texting program, but the program cost $10,000, because [school officials] had a private vendor facilitate the program," Vuong said. "A lot of administrators were afraid their workload would skyrocket from handling tips from students."

Vuong found a free alternative using Google Voice to register a specific phone number for each school, alleviating any possible confusion.

Vuong gave the example of a student who reported a problem in a certain room, say Room 101.

"[Without each school having a specific number] we wouldn't know which 101 it would be: the elementary, high school or middle school," Vuong said.

The texting program has been successful in the Capistrano and Saddleback Valley Unified school districts, according to Vuong.

"We have prevented half a dozen suicide attempts," Vuong said. "At one high school, a student drew plans about where they would position themselves to place explosives. The student was mentally ill, and based on the tip, professionals got involved to prevent any possible violence."

Vuong said Orange County schools have averaged five to 10 tips per week, and administrators may spend an additional 30 minutes during that span following up on reports.

"If it's about bullying, we may encourage the student to come to the office on their own accord," Vuong said. "If it's narcotics-related, a campus supervisor may approach the student as they leave campus.

"Surprisingly we haven't received a [serious] prank," Vuong said. "We might get a report of a guy and girl kissing in the parking lot, but nothing malicious."

Laguna Beach High students may text information to (858) 848-7847 (7-T-I-P).

The hotline is only for tips. For emergencies, students should call 911.

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