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Program will let Waco students report on bullying via e-mail

February 2, 2002

Five Waco schools soon will unveil an anonymous e-mail program that lets students report bullying, home problems and potential violence to principals and other campus leaders.

The schools will start using the School Bridge program this week. It was developed by Insideye, a California-based company that makes programs allowing private-sector employees to send confidential e-mails to bosses about sexual harassment and other office troubles.

Insideye President Ashley Bryan said the company turned its attention to schools in light of recent shootings and other types of campus violence. She also cited a Journal of the American Medical Association story that says bullying affects one in three American children.

"The devastating school tragedies kind of got us thinking," Bryan said. "We decided to change the service and try to put it into schools so that the kids can have a retribution-free safe place that they can come and speak anonymously to the administration."

Bryan, who is from Texas, said the company first used the program in an Austin school. Maggie McCarthy, executive director of the Rapoport Foundation, heard about the School Bridge program and suggested its use in the Waco district.

Students can access their campus School Bridge Web site from home or school computers. A menu bar allows them to choose whom to write, such as a principal, nurse or campus police officer. Students can type in their names, but do not have to do so.

The program will start this week at Brazos, University, Carver and G.L. Wiley middle schools, as well as A.J. Moore Academy high school. The program is free to schools this year.

University Principal Alfredo Loredo said the site will help students who are not comfortable talking with principals face-to-face. He said bullying sometimes occurs as students are walking home or in hallway gaps where teachers aren't always standing.

"There are probably more opportunities to bully than we'd like," he said. "We certainly want students to feel that they're safe on this campus."

Loredo said students can use the program from computers in classrooms, labs and the library. He said he may start allowing them to use the library computers before the school day starts.

Cameron Lovell, an eighth-grader at University, said older students sometimes pick on sixth-graders. Cameron said he likes the prospect of talking to the principal without being seen walking into his office.

"Usually the people that bully don't come into the library that much," he said.

Brazos Middle School Principal Veronica Sharp said she often wears pocketed outfits because students hand her a couple dozen notes during the day. Note topics include bothersome classmates, schedule changes and difficult teachers.

Sharp said she spends a couple of hours each day writing a response to each note. Since she checks e-mails throughout the day, she expects that to go much quicker.

If she hears about a student who is bullying classmates, Sharp said she will call in the accused for a warning. She also said she will tell teachers to watch him closely.

"I think it will be a great deterrent, knowing that somebody could sit at home and type out what happened in the bathroom," said Sharp, who said mischief also occurs outside and in locker rooms. "I wouldn't know who the student giving the information is, but I'm going to know whom to keep my eye on."

Sharp also said she can give advice and contact information to students who write her about abuse at home. Principals can also take polls on lighter subjects, such as the school schedule and cafeteria food.

If a school official receives a message that warns of upcoming violence, Insideye officials can get into the computer system and find the sender's identity. University's Loredo also said the company can block out students who send silly messages or false alarms.

Principal Kent Ewing said such messages haven't been a problem at Bowie High School, the Austin campus that was first in the country to use School Bridge. Ewing said he receives three or four messages on some days, while other days pass without any messages arriving.

"It's something that is kind of subtle, and students feel very comfortable knowing it's there," Ewing said. "They've utilized it, I won't say frequently, but when they need it."

Earlier this year, a student used the system to tell Ewing that a friend was considering suicide. Ewing then reached the teen's parents, who got their child into counseling.

"To this day I don't know who the student was that sent me a message about it," he said.

Bryan said she hopes to keep the program free to schools in future years. "Our goal is to look for grants and federal funds so we don't have to charge the schools," she said.

Loredo said the program can improve writing and computer skills. While School Bridge will give a new voice to shy students, he said he expects others will keep talking to him in person.

"We'll always have the students who want to come and talk to us face-to-face," he said. "And we welcome that."

By JASON EMBRY Tribune-Herald staff writer. Copyright © 2002 Cox Newspapers, Inc.


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