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 Article of Interest - School Climate

County's tip line provides outlet for school concerns
Prevention of violence, teen suicide are missions; its anonymity, 24-hr availability boost its profile
By Suzanne Pardington, Contra Costa Times, September 28, 2002
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Contra Costa County's new 24-hour school violence tip line has tapped into a need for both students and parents: an anonymous way to report and talk to a counselor about threats to children's safety.

The first week, a parent called to report that two brothers threatened to bring a gun to a Fremont middle school. The next day, police found the brothers and the gun in a backpack.

On the last day of school, a parent and student from Pacheco called together about a friend who had asked for a knife so she could kill herself over a breakup with a boyfriend.

And Tuesday night, a student from East County told a parent that a bully had threatened to beat up a friend for his lunch money. The parent called the tip line.

Contra Costa Crisis Center volunteers, who answer the line, intervened in these situations and a dozen more, helping to prevent potential tragedies. They have handled up to 20 calls a week since the tip line opened in January, but they want even more teachers, parents and students to know about it.

Coordinators are spreading the word by visiting classes at every middle and high school in the county by the end of the school year. They also plan to attend PTA meetings and distribute fliers, book marks and stickers with the phone number on them.

"The more outreach we do, the more we expect the phone to be ringing," said Edith Cordone, director of the Youth Violence Prevention Program and the tip line.

Many school districts nationwide started anonymous tip lines after the shootings at Columbine High, Santana High and other schools in recent years.

Contra Costa County officials stepped up their efforts to prepare for and prevent school violence after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Ray Penning, associate superintendent at the county Office of Education.

The attacks brought about a heightened sense of awareness of the potential for violence and renewed energy and unity among law enforcement, schools and other agencies, he said.

In addition to the tip line, the agencies have offered training on how to identify students or adults who might pose a threat. In November, they plan to simulate a violent school situation at the Office of Emergency Services in Martinez to practice their response. Next week, all schools in the county will conduct a "shelter-in-place" drill.

Tip line volunteers are trained to help with anything that could potentially harm students, including bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, hate crimes and homicidal or suicidal remarks.

"In this time that we live in, with the threats and potential for violence, I hope that it would be reassuring that there is someone there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to respond to threats and try to intervene to stop them," Penning said.

Some of the 125 calls to the tip line so far have been people testing out the line and asking how it works. Some kids have called as a joke, laughed and hung up. About 28 calls have been substantive threats. In about half the cases, the volunteer counselors helped the callers handle the situation themselves and called the school or police in the rest.

Averting teenage suicide is a big concern of crisis center volunteers, Cordone said.

So far this year in Contra Costa County, two teenage boys have committed suicide. Last year, four boys and one girl killed themselves, according to the crisis center.

During a visit to John Swett High School in Crockett on Friday, Cordone told students in a ninth-grade social studies class that the tip line is a safe place to call if they are worried about violence.

"The best part of this program is it's completely anonymous," Cordone told the class. "We aren't interested in your name. We're just interested in the information that you have."

Kristina Hanley, 14, said the tip line is a good idea, because the call is secret and there is no chance of being punished for reporting a problem.

"If someone has a problem, that's where they should go," Hanley said.

Her teacher, Tony Tuttle, said teachers and administrators would like to think that students would come to them if they were troubled, but students may think the school staff is too busy.

"Some people don't want to burden other people with their problems, especially kids who are isolated or alone," he said. "They think there's no one who cares for them."

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