New texting program lets students tip police anonymously
on January 22, 2011
Public school students in Oakland now have one more way to let authorities know if something is making them feel unsafe on campus: texting. Beginning last Thursday, a new program at the six major high school campuses in town—Oakland Tech, Skyline, McClymonds, Fremont, Castlemont and Oakland High—allows students to send anonymous text messages to Oakland Unified School District police about anything that worries them, from rumors of a fight on campus to concerns that a weapon has been brought to school.
OUSD Police Chief Peter Sarna implemented the pilot program with $2,000 he saved from his maintenance budget. The money pays for the texting interface that provides anonymity for students and a dedicated line for police. Responding to those texts will become a regular duty of Sarna’s officers in the same way they respond to anonymous calls or other tips. “Texting is just such a familiar means of communication for kids,” Sarna said. “I just felt, what better way for kids to let police know about things that concern them or their friends?”
Students eating lunch at Skyline High on Friday agreed that texting was a primary mode of communication, but many weren’t sure the new plan would work the way it was meant to.
Imani Cole, a senior and president of the Black Student Union, sat on a bench in Skyline’s courtyard, her phone open in her hand. She said she worried that this new method of communicating with police could be dangerous if the text senders’ anonymity wasn’t preserved, and other students retaliated. “It may not be safe,” she said. “With texting, word gets around here fast,” Cole said.
Nicole Chung, also a senior, voiced a similar concern. “There are kids who will use it for its original purposes, but also some who will use it to spread rumors and start trouble,” Chung said. Chung was eating lunch with a group of friends on a knoll in front of the school, and she and her friends had no trouble imagining ways students might abuse the system. “People could say a fight was happening at this time in this area, but actually have the fight at the opposite end of campus,” Chung said to nods. “Or they could use it to accuse innocent people.”
Chief Sarna said this kind of misuse isn’t a huge concern for him. His texting idea was inspired by an NFL program that allows people in stadiums to text in about unruly crowd behavior. The program has had a very low occurrence of false texts, he said. “I figure if you can have a stadium full of 50,000 people who are drinking, and have false texts be low I really don’t think it’s going to be that much of problem,” Sarna said.
OUSD officers will also be able to respond to texts directly to ask clarifying questions and use campus security cameras to check up on reports even before they reach campus, Sarna said. In addition, Sarna said, “I’m prepared to deal with prank calls. Frankly, I’d rather investigate 25 false claims and have one real claim come in that saves someone’s life. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
On Friday, Skyline Assistant Principal Vinh Trinh sat in his office with his radio on. He had been in touch with school security officers and the OUSD police all day about a gang fight rumored to be scheduled on campus, he said. A community member had called in an anonymous tip and Trinh and his staff had been working all day to head the fight off. All remained calm 20 minutes after the final lunch bell, and Trinh hoped they had succeeded in averting a battle. He hadn’t yet heard about the new texting program, but liked the idea. On a day like today, he said, “It would have been helpful.” Like his students, Trinh worried that police might waste time and effort following up false claims, but “if we can avoid that, it’s great because kids hear first, before anyone else,” he said.
OUSD police have certainly chosen the right method of communication too, Trinh said. “With 2,000 kids, we have 2,000 phones,” he said. Except for in-class time, “they’re on their phones all day.”
Sarna said that as of Friday afternoon, his department hadn’t received any texts yet, true or false. “That kind of substantiates my thought on the number of false texts were going to have because we haven’t seen any yet,” Sarna said, pointing out that more false texts could be expected at the beginning of a new program like this.
Sarna does expect the texts to start coming though, about “anything and everything safety related. It could range from ‘Someone brought a knife to school or a gun to school,’ to ‘There’s going to be a fight at school.’ I’m pretty confident we will get tips on crimes that have occurred in the past too,” Sarna said. “People want an anonymous means to let police know.”
During Skyline’s lunch hour, Christian Huerta and Michael Beale, both seniors, were discussing the new program. “It’s a good idea, but some students would abuse it,” Huerta said, echoing the common concern that students would misdirect police in the event of a planned fight.
Beale agreed, but then thought of an alternative use for the new system. “I mean, what if someone was getting bullied though?” he asked. Students could let police know anonymously. “That would be nifty,” he said.
For more information about the new program, including information on how to send an anonymous text, students and parents can call the OUSD Police non-emergency number, (510) 874-7777 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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