A school district in South Hadley, Massachusetts, is hoping a specialized software application will help stop tragedies like the one that befell Phoebe Prince, an Irish-born teen who committed suicide in January after an alleged bullying campaign by fellow students.
In the wake of her death, the Massachusetts state legislature passed a law mandating that schools create formal anti-bullying plans, as well as provide an anonymous way of reporting bullying incidents.
The law inspired South Hadley native Edward Wall to develop a software application that allows observers of suspected bullying to make online reports to school administrators, anonymously if desired.
"It seemed like something like this was needed," said Wall, who is himself a graduate of the high school. His company, Earshot Technologies, is donating the software to the school but he hopes to market it to others.
When a report of bullying, victimization or suspected illegal activity is made, the system alerts school administrators by a text message and e-mail. If the administrator deems the report valid, it can be "activated" for a fixed time frame, such as one week.
Active reports show up on dashboards provided to other lower-level officials, such as teachers or coaches, who have significant interactions with the student in question. These officials must closely observe the student and submit a report once the observation period ends. Those reports are included in a master file along with the original complaint.
The system is getting some finishing touches and should be operational at the high school by October, said principal Dan Smith.
At a minimum, all the parties involved will be called in for an initial discussion of the report, Smith said.
"There will never be a complaint that comes in where we don't do at least that much," he said. That initial meeting will determine whether a full investigation is warranted.
After some discussions, the school has decided not to allow anonymous reports to be filed online, at least for now, he said. A paper-based anonymous reporting system is in place "to meet the intent of the law," he said.
School officials are concerned that people in other locations, looking to cause mischief, could obtain the names of students and use the Earshot system to file false reports, he said. "We would end up chasing our tails on things like that."
Overall, such systems pose challenges for schools along with any benefits, said Eric Goldman, an associate professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law and director of its High Tech Law Institute.
For one, schools must be prepared to supply the labor power to deal with all reports, or else face potential liabilities if they do not, he said. "If you ask, then you better be prepared to respond."
But bullying investigations are thorny issues overall, he added. For example, the accused could turn out to be innocent and subsequently claim their civil rights had been violated.
"The decision of the principal to act or not to act is fraught with liability in either direction," Goldman said.
It remains to be seen how much use the Earshot system will get. The Prince tragedy has seemed to have a chilling effect on would-be bullies at the school, where classes resumed this week, according to Smith.
"We've gotten off to a very respectful and proper start," he said.
Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com