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OCSB launching bullying report app

ocsbconnect-logoStudents will be able to document acts anonymously

BY NECO COCKBURN, OTTAWA CITIZEN SEPTEMBER 30, 2013

Students will have a new way to report bullying and other incidents when the Ottawa Catholic School Board launches a smartphone app that sends anonymous reports to school administrators.

The app, called OCSB Connect, is to go live on Monday as a one-year pilot project for intermediate and secondary school students, said Peter Atkinson, the board's superintendent of continuing and community education, and safe and accepting schools.

"It's a way of connecting, because we don't want any student - particularly a student who is feeling vulnerable - to feel isolated," Atkinson said.

Face-to-face contact is still best, he said, but the app is "just one of several measures that are available to students to respond to bullying situations."

The app-based reporting program closely follows another pilot project rolled out in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

The app will correspond with specific schools, Atkinson said. A phone or text message goes to a service centre, where an operator reviews the information and replies with "a limited set of agreed upon responses," he said, such as asking questions to get more details, telling someone who's thinking about harmful behaviour to call 911, and offering to patch the complainant through to the Kids Help Phone.

The complaint is anonymously passed along to school administrators. The app can also send messages and announcements from the school to students, Atkinson said.

"This is a way of connecting students directly to school administrators," he said, adding that students had suggested that an anonymous app-style reporting system would be helpful.

Though the board had explored the use of such a system over the past year, the results of a "school climate" survey completed this past spring confirmed the idea that the app was worth trying out, Atkinson said.

Most intermediate and secondary students stated in the survey that there are safe ways to report bullying in their schools, but the rated responses averaged three on a scale of one to five, showing there's room for improvement, Atkinson said.

"We need to do everything to enable students to report, and to give them the assurances that they are absolutely safe," he said.

"We think they are when they go to counsellors, but we have to listen to the student voice on this."

The school climate survey also found that one in five intermediate and secondary students reported that bullying is sometimes an issue at school, down slightly from two years ago, when the last survey was completed.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is expanding its app-based reporting program, named Tip-Off, after a successful pilot between Feb. 27 and the end of May that involved six schools attended by about 6,000 students, said Pam Reinholdt, executive superintendent of student achievement.

About 50 schools in the district have signed up for the program so far, she said.

An average of about 13 reports a month were filed at each school during the pilot, just over one-third of which dealt with physical, verbal or social bullying, she said. Students would often name a victim in their reports, Reinholdt said.

Cyberbullying, drugs, suggestions (for improved schoolyard monitoring, for example) and sexual harassment were among other reports. There were general inquiries and recognitions of acts of kindness, too, "so it wasn't all negative.

"It actually became a really good communication tool" for students, parents and staff, she said.

Administrators have also learned from the pilot, Reinholdt said. Based on feedback, there are plans to place small posters about the program inside bathroom stalls, where students have privacy.

While an anonymous app that can be downloaded by anyone raises the possibility of false or frivolous reports being filed, that only happened for a couple of weeks after the program started, Reinholdt said.

Atkinson said the board has "tremendous confidence in our administrators, who, quite frankly, deal with anonymous reporting all the time - notes passed in under doors, telephone calls and then a quick hang up, this sort of thing.

"They are going to use the same protocols, the same investigative processes that they would use with any anonymous reporting. They're not going to accept something at face value," he said. Atkinson wouldn't disclose what the board is being charged for its pilot project - the base app is developed by a company named InTouch Mobile - but it was covered through provincial grant money aimed at preventive measures for bullying, he said.

The Upper Canada District School Board is among other school boards considering the use of an anti-bullying app.

Article courtesy of The Ottawa Citizen.