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Senate panel approves proposed hotline to prevent school shootings

Students are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on February 14, after a shooter opened fire on the campus. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

Students are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on February 14, after a shooter opened fire on the campus. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

Hoping to prevent a future school shooting, a Senate panel agreed Tuesday to set up a statewide hotline where students and others can anonymously report dangerous activities and threats.

The idea of the “Safe to Tell” program, according to 14-year-old Ridley Wilson, is to have a central point — and a single phone number or cell phone application — to gather intelligence on what is happening in schools. Wilson, a student at Madison Highland Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that ensures that otherwise disparate tips are gathered under a single umbrella, giving the agency collecting the data the chance to see patterns before they explode into something else.

“Something needs to be done now,” she testified. “It’s dangerous for kids to be in school.”

Wilson cited the Feb. 14 incident in Parkland where Nikolas Cruz went to his former school and killed 17 people.

“His classmates had reported him to authorities,” she said.

“But reports weren’t pulled together for a full picture of the danger,” Wilson continued. “With Safe to Tell, they would have been compiled and he may have been stopped.”

But Wilson told lawmakers the hotline is more than simply a way to aggregate data.

First, she said it has to be easy to find a single number to call, versus each school having a “tip line.” A single point of contact also makes it easier and cheaper to market and educate people.

And then there’s the anonymous nature of it all.

“I know when you report something to the office, it’s easy for others to figure out who reported it,” Wilson said. “There is a saying at school: Snitches get put in ditches.”

Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, said HB 2489 isn’t an entirely new idea, with similar programs already at work in Colorado and Nevada. In fact, he said, the Colorado program was set up in the wake of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton where two teens went on a shooting spree that left 13 dead and more than 20 injured.

“They put together a task force to determine what’s the best way where a student can anonymously and safely report dangerous unlawful activity,” Boyer said. He told lawmakers that Attorney General Mark Brnovich has offered to house the program.

“That makes sense because he’s best able to coordinate with law enforcement,” Boyer said.

Tuesday’s unanimous committee approval sends the measure to the Senate Education Committee. It already has cleared the House on a 48-12 vote.

But Boyer acknowledged there’s at least one more change that needs to be made to the bill. He said it needs some sort of language to prevent slander lawsuits to be filed against those who make reports if their identities are ever disclosed.

Still to be worked out is how the program will be funded.

As the bill stands now it allocates $400,000 to set it up. But Boyer said there should be some federal dollars available.

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