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How It's Becoming Easier to Report Suspicious Behavior in Texas

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A special state Senate panel tasked with digging deeper into school safety and violence in schools spent Tuesday talking about mental health, as lawmakers examined the root causes of mass shootings on campuses. The 8+ hour hearing tackled mental health concerns and what's being done to help students at all stages.

"One of the things I worry about with finding the next school shooter, identifying them, is that it's going to make mental health the boogeyman... and it's not the case," Dr. Jeff Temple, professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said.

"Most people who have mental health problems, are not going to hurt anyone else, a vast vast majority, if anything, they're going to harm themselves or be harmed by other people," said Temple, who is also a Galveston school board trustee.

Lawmakers have a sense of urgency to make changes before school starts next month.

"We're in a hurry to do something," State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said during the hearing.

Todd Schobel created a tool that he said could help students feel more comfortable reporting suspicious behavior. His mobile app, called STOPit, is designed for students to anonymously report video, photos, or messages directly to school administrators.

"Essentially what STOPit does is it gives kids a voice, a safe and secure way to anonymously report aggressive behavior, disturbing behaviors, and impending school violence, things that people may be plotting or planning to take out on their school," Schobel explained. He said students want tools they can relate to in a 21st Century world that are approachable.

The app features 2-way anonymous messaging, so school officials can ask follow-up questions to the tipster, helping to weed out credible tips and giving administrators the ability to gather additional information.

"Not only does it improve the investigatory process, but it lets the schools get way ahead of something before they're dealing with a crisis," Schobel said.

A law requiring a form of anonymous reporting in schools took effect in September. Schobel said more than 6,300 reports were submitted in 500 schools through the app since the start of the school year.

STOPit is free for students and families to use, but there is a cost to the district.

"There are a lot of companies out there... a lot of which charge," Crime Stoppers Houston's Safe School Institute director Michelle Sacks said. "We don't want that added cost given to our schools."

Sacks urged lawmakers to fund an effort to coordinate Crime Stoppers communities around the state, with the Houston organization providing training and resources.

She said 80 percent of the Crime Stoppers organizations she reached out to were willing to send a representative to Houston for training. Crime Stoppers offers rewards through its tip line, website, and app. Sacks worries that having different reporting methods that are not streamlined results in confusion.

The Department of Public Safety recently launched an iWatch app for Texans to report suspicious activity to law enforcement.

"Social media is here to stay, and kids are smarter than us and they're going to continue to use social media and smartphones and if we try to police it, we're going to lose," Temple said.

Ultimately, the goal is the same, Schobel said, to create "safer places for all of us to learn, work, and live."

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