Mental health is top concern in York County schools, Safe2Say data shows

Nearly a year after the launch of the Safe2Say anonymous reporting system in schools statewide, data shows the top concerns in York County were not physical threats.

Rather, York County students — included under data for Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12 — reported suicide or thoughts of suicide more than any other safety issue in the last six months of the 2018-19 school year.

LIU 12 includes 14 member districts from York County and the York County School of Technology. West Shore and Northern York County school districts are not members.

Safe2Say allows students, educators and administrators to anonymously report when they see signs that someone might be in danger of hurting themselves or others.

York County Human Services employees Del Franz, left, and Nikki Miller embraces after the Walk To Raise Awareness About Mental Health in York City Monday, May 6, 2019. The York County System of Care in collaboration with York County Human Services sponsored the walk during Mental Health Awareness Month. Area business and organizations will be displaying green lighting through May 12th to show support. Bill Kalina photo

"Kids don’t do bad things just cause they’re gonna do bad things," Dover Area Superintendent Tracy Krum has said, noting that people are realizing more in recent years how connected mental health is to behavior issues.

In light of rising concerns about school safety — spurred by events such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018 — the state initiated a number of safety measures through Act 44, approved in June 2018.

Safe2Say was one of them, implemented through the state Attorney General's Office on Jan. 14, 2019. Its 2018-19 year-end report covers data through June 30. All 500 school districts registered, and 863,986 students have been trained to use the system.

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Cut-out hands, representing each of about 1,000 students in the school, are displayed on the windows in the cafeteria at Central York Middle School in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, March 8, 2018. Aevidum Club supports suicide awareness, positivity and mental health awareness. Aevidum Club Advisor and science teacher Brian Heisey says that the project sends the message that, "everyone's got their back, everyone's represented and everyone means something," he added, "Everyone has worth." Dawn J. Sagert photo

National nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, which has previously used evidence-based intervention programs, built the system.

Safe2Say has a $1.6 million budget for the 2019-20 school year — which covers the full cost of the program, including technology and around-the-clock staffing — at no cost to the state's districts, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in an email.

Students, educators and administrators can report through the app, website or 24/7 crisis center hotline. The largest number of tips —19,392 — came through the mobile app.

Other intermediate units saw similar patterns of mental health reporting in the year-end data, which tallied 23,494 tips — excluding false reports and test tips. LIU 12 was near the average with 856 tips.

Some tips from these units were  duplicates from multiple schools.

Out of 49 possible categories, the top three types of tips received fall under bullying or cyberbullying, cutting or self-harm, and suicide or consideration of suicide, respectively. 

The next highest tip categories were depression or anxiety, drug use or distribution/possession, and smoking or vaping in school. The number of tips for threats against the school or another person were relatively low, in the range of 500 to 600 tips statewide.

“The majority of tips received by Safe2Say have not been about students making violent threats to their school or to their classmates — instead, they have been focused on students struggling with mental health issues,” the report reads.

Shapiro was not surprised that mental health was the primary driver, as it's a growing concern not just for students but for the entire state, he said in an email. He added that the option to report anonymously is an important outlet for young people.

"Students are struggling with stress, bullying, the pressures of the digital age, and there’s a lot of stigma associated with seeking help," he stated.

Safe2Say provides an additional platform for students to report tips, and based on timing and the nature of the information, it might be a better avenue for students, Central York Assistant to the Superintendent for Administration Ryan Billet has said.

"At the end of the day, that’s really what matters most," he said.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in the fall showed suicide rates among teens have been increasing in recent years. Suicide was the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24 in 2017.

More:Local officials fret uptick in teen suicide, bullying

A panel of experts speaks before Gov. Tom Wolf's Special Council on Gun Violence at the York City School District administrative building Friday, Nov. 22. From L to R: Geoff Kolchin, program manager for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; Mike Vereb, director of government relations for the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General; Brittany Kline, program director  for the Safe2Say Something anonymous reporting program administered through the attorney general's office.

York County students were  above the state average for suicidal thoughts and bullying, according to the most recent Pennsylvania Youth Survey.

After examining the Safe2Say data and speaking with hundreds of students across the state, Shapiro said he called for funding to improve mental wellness for the state's employees and ensure every school has a mental health counselor.

More:Local officials say more funding is key in mental health battle

Gov. Tom Wolf on Jan. 2, announced an all-agency effort focused on mental health, including steps to increase the number of highly qualified school social workers and full-time counselors, add more mental health services into higher education and rely on more trauma-informed approaches.

Shapiro said he'll be speaking on more  Safe2Say data soon in anticipation of the Tuesday, Jan. 14, anniversary of its launch, but he noted the system has helped save lives, removed weapons from schools and identified credible threats.

"That’s why it has become a national model for anonymous reporting systems that other states are looking at as they develop their own school safety infrastructure," he said.