Instead, they enlisted the help of a local nonprofit organization that runs a 24/7 hotline, including fielding calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. By doing so, the program is able to respond to tips from children and teens by connecting them with a crisis counselor instead of a police officer.
“One of the real advantages that we think that we provide is the reduction of law enforcement response,” said Diana Schmidt, manager of Safe2Help Nebraska. “It’s like a whole safety net as opposed to sending law enforcement, (which) is always a last resort for us.”
Safe2Help Nebraska is one of the latest programs modeled after Safe2Tell, the anonymous reporting system created in Colorado more than two decades ago in response to youth violence. As states have looked for ways to prevent school shootings, some have followed Colorado’s lead in offering a tip line for students to report concerning behaviors among their friends and classmates.
The tip lines implemented across the country each operate a little bit differently, said Safe2Tell founder Susan Payne, who called the Nebraska model “the next level.”
“We’re constantly evolving,” she said.
Safe2Help is in its infancy, having only launched in January, and as a pilot program, it is only serving Douglas County and nine school districts. It is housed under Boys Town, which runs a hotline and employs about 74 crisis counselors. Safe2Help has a staff of five people, with another 20 workers who rotate shifts to help with the reporting system.
As in Colorado, suicide tips are the leading reason students reach out to the program. So far this year, the program has received more than 300 reports. Of those, just over 60, about 19%, were for potential suicide threats
The pandemic started just after Safe2Help’s launch and, as a result of students moving to remote learning, there has been a slowdown in reports.
Unlike the new model, Safe2Tell reports made by Colorado students are sent to both schools and local law enforcement and then it’s up to local officials to decide who responds. It’s unclear how often law enforcement officials act on the tips as the Colorado Attorney General’s Office does not track data that shows what happens after help arrives.
Safe2Tell calls came into Colorado State Patrol communications centers before they were moved to the Colorado Information Analysis Center, a hub that collects and shares information with federal, local and other officials on potential crimes and terrorism acts, in March 2019, according to the program’s latest annual report.
Only 30, or about 0.1%, of the more than 22,000 Safe2Tell reports were transferred to counselors at the Colorado Crisis Services during the 2018-19 school year, according to the annual report.
Colorado officials said that one of the reasons police are called to respond to suicide or mental health tips is because if a report is made in the middle of the night and someone’s life is at risk, it can’t go unanswered — and often police are the only ones available to respond.
However, the Nebraska program operates differently. When Safe2Help receives a report that a student is worried about someone else, a crisis counselor at the program reaches out to a parent, even in the middle of the night.
The counselor talks to the student and, through an assessment, determines what type of help the child needs, and then works with parents on creating a plan to get the child assistance.
Some school districts didn’t feel trained to perform suicide assessments, which is why they wanted the tips to be handled by someone with expertise in suicide prevention and management, Schmidt said.
“It’s a lot of pressure if you’re the person that’s taking the information and you have to figure out what to do with the youth in the middle of the night,” she said.
In the first seven months of the tip line, Safe2Help has only sent police to respond to 12, or 19%, of the sucide reports it received. The rest were handled by crisis counselors, according to the program.
Police are called to respond to suicide reports when “everything else has been exhausted” and counselors are unable to reach parents or guardians, or when there is something in the report that indicates there is an imminent danger, said Denise Rieder, coordinator for the Douglas County Threat Advisory Team.
The counselors share information with school officials, who then follow up with students to make sure they get the mental health help they need. Crisis counselors can also make referrals for counselors if parents are unsure about where to seek help, Schmidt said.
“We always try to do the least invasive thing we can for the family and calling the police for a welfare check is not automatic,” she said.
Schools and local officials were aware that students would call the tip line because they were concerned about issues such as suicide, anxiety and depression, which is why the system wasn’t housed in an emergency dispatch center, Rieder said.
“We didn’t want a switchboard,” she said.
While 911 dispatchers are trained in how to talk to callers and handle medical calls, the county didn’t want to “tie up those resources as well,” Rieder said, adding that dispatchers also are more likely to send police officers on a report.
“We can call out mobile crisis responses; we’ve got embedded therapists with the agencies,” said Rieder, a retired lieutenant from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. “The problem with that is society maybe does not want law enforcement responding as much.”
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Join us for a conversation on youth mental health in the time of coronavirus
We are hosting a virtual conversation about teens’ mental health with experts in the field. We’ll be talking about the rising rate of youth suicides in Colorado and how teens can better care for their mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.
Join us on Oct. 5 at 6 p.m. RSVP here. Have a question for the event or about our Crisis Point investigation? Submit it here and we may answer it during our event.
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