“It’s no joke.”
That’s the message the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice wants to get through to kids before they end up facing felony charges over making threats of violence against schools.
The department, along with other agencies, has encouraged the use of a new state-sponsored app called Fortify Florida to report any threats they might know about. It rolled out its latest campaign this week.
But at least one Tampa Bay area school superintendent is calling for changes to Fortify Florida before it becomes part of a punch line.
Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning, also president of the state superintendents association, said the anonymity permitted with the app is causing high levels of frustration in his district. Calls come in regularly, with alerts going to several officials, reporting vague details that school administrators and law enforcement must respond to with a high level of seriousness.
A recent tip relating to Cypress Creek Middle-High School in Wesley Chapel stated, "Someone was holding a gun-looking object. I don’t know who it was.” It brought out 15 deputies and three school district guardians, who spent nearly four hours searching lockers and backpacks before determining the threat was not real.
No one wants to ignore a true problem, Browning said.
But since school started in August, he noted, the dozens of Fortify Florida alerts to the school system have turned up nothing. The district reported receiving five “bogus” tips on the morning of Sept. 12 alone.
One recent morning an alert came in warning about a “Sebastian” at Bayonet Point Middle School. The name and a phone number were the entire message. District officials looked into how many Sebastians attended the campus and whether any had that number before dismissing the call.
Such scenarios have Browning wanting a way to get more information about the Fortify Florida alerts before so many people spend so much time chasing after what he worries could become students’ new way to disrupt classes without getting caught.
“They know exactly what they are doing,” he said. "They’re disrupting the education day. I have an obligation to provide kids with a great education. I cannot do it with this tool, because kids are hiding behind Fortify Florida."
Browning said he planned to ask lawmakers to look into providing a method similar to Crime Stoppers, which allows agencies to communicate with tipsters while still granting them anonymity. At least that way the districts could seek more details to help figure out whether a tip has merit.
The Pinellas County school district has had similar concerns. But it doesn’t rely on Fortify Florida, which has brought in 41 tips, as much as it does on a system launched by Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit that works to prevent violence in schools.
The group was formed by the parents of those killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Its “Say Something” anonymous reporting system has generated more than 860 alerts in Pinellas since the district began using it in January.
“The benefit of the Sandy Hook Promise system is that concerns are received by call center staff who interact with tipsters and can ask questions to get more information, while still allowing the tipster to remain anonymous,” Pinellas spokeswoman Lisa Wolf-Chason said. “The tip is then passed along to relevant district staff or law enforcement for follow up.”
Hillsborough County school officials, who also have received several false reports through Fortify Florida, suggested that they, too might prefer some ability to secure more details about tips.
“It would be a good option, if it was possible, to ask questions to a tipster without violating their confidentiality and allowing them to remain anonymous,” spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. “We understand remaining anonymous is often important for a person who wants to report a threat without the fear of reprisal.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the state’s public school safety commission, said he had not received complaints about Fortify Florida. But he added that he was not surprised by the concerns raised.
“In law enforcement, we deal with this all the time,” Gualtieri said.
Anonymity helps bring in details that otherwise might never get reported, he said. But adequate vetting and filtering of information helps prevent officers from wasting time.
Fortify Florida was developed quickly, in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 dead, Gualtieri observed.
“It might be an opportunity there for some tweaks to it,” he said, noting some discussion about having two-way communication capability might be worthwhile.
Gualtieri acknowledged that the investigators must take care, too, to properly handle calls that falsely report activities such as a shooter so the caller can sit back and watch events unfold. They also must be aware of the possibility of vindictive calls by someone trying to make another person suffer.
Schools are simply trying to find the right balance, he said. “It’s better that your kids be safe.”
Lawmakers have said they are continuing to review the state’s school safety laws for possible improvements. Browning said he hopes Fortify Florida is on their radar screen.