Colorado's Safe2Tell Program Sees Youth Suicide Reports Increase Dramatically
The text messages the teenager received one night from her friend frightened her.
The friend, upset after a breakup with a boyfriend, said she had taken pills and that this would be her final message. She was sleepy, she said.
The teenager alerted authorities by contacting Safe2Tell Colorado, an anonymous system for students to report potential school threats or violence, and they sent police and an ambulance to the friend’s home.
They found the 16-year-old unresponsive in her bedroom and her parents—who were asleep before authorities arrived at their front door—none the wiser to what was happening.
This story, as told by Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, is just one example of how students in the state are increasingly turning to the Safe2Tell system to report friends and classmates who are at risk of harming themselves.
The number of suicide-related reports coming into Safe2Tell has increased ninefold in six years, with suicide surpassing bullying as the leading reason students contact the program.
During the 2011-12 school year, the program received 307 reports related to suicide. By the 2017-18 school year, the number had increased to 2,786 reports related to suicide threats, according to Safe2Tell data.
“It’s horrifying,” Coffman said. “The first time I heard a 10-year-old committed suicide, I thought, ‘That’s not possible.’ ”
The increase in suicide-related calls reflects the rising number of youths dying by suicide across the nation and state. Suicide has become the leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 24 in Colorado.
The rise in youth suicides was thrown into the spotlight in August when a fourth-grader at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School killed himself. The death was startling in that the boy was only 9 years old.
Roughly 436 youths between ages 10 and 14 died by suicide in the United States in 2016, almost double the number a decade earlier. The same year, 5,723 people between ages 15 and 24 died by suicide, a one-third increase from 2006.
What’s driving the increase in youth suicide cannot be narrowed to a single thing, but feelings of alienation, isolation, rejection and discrimination are common for children and teenagers, and they “really hurt,” said Dr. Justin Ross, a psychologist at UCHealth.
School officials say the rise of social media has also played a role.
“In general, I would say that social media created some really complicated things for just people, kids especially,” said Kevin Carroll, chief of student success for Jefferson County Public Schools, noting that teenagers often compare their lives with what they see posted online.
The Safe2Tell program was created in the aftermath of the deadly shooting at Columbine High School almost two decades ago as an avenue for parents, students and teachers to share information. Students can make reports with Safe2Tell by phone call, a mobile app or online.
Safe2Tell went live in 2004, with the program receiving 102 total reports during the 2004 and 2005 school year. During the 2017-18 school year, Safe2Tell received 16,000 total reports from students.
As Safe2Tell has grown in Colorado, it has started to attract the attention of other states.
After the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February, Coffman’s phone started ringing. State and local officials from more than 20 states wanted to know more about Colorado’s Safe2Tell program.
“It’s as if there’s a new seriousness and intentionality addressing these issues of violence,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean every state and local school board has the money to act on those intentions.
Initially started as a nonprofit, Safe2Tell was placed under the Colorado Attorney General’s Office in 2014, and state lawmakers took on the responsibility of paying for the program, which costs about $500,000 a year.
That’s where U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, stepped up to help.
Mike Coffman and Cynthia Coffman, who divorced last year, nonetheless are working together to secure federal grants for states that decide to set up similar hotlines. HR 6713 would authorize $25 million each year from 2019 to 2023 for “Safe2Tell” grants.
While it was created in response to school violence—and still appeals to other states for that reason—suicide threats have been the leading reason students file reports with Safe2Tell since the 2013-14 school year.
Last year, suicide, bullying and drugs were the top reasons reports were made with Safe2Tell.
A planned school attack was among the top 10 types of reports made last year, with 692, up from 40 such reports in the 2011-12 school year.
“[The] Safe2Tell program really has all been about protecting you and your friends,” said John McDonald, executive director of school safety for Jefferson County Public Schools. “So as suicide has become a bigger and bigger issue, our kids are reporting it as a threat to their environment because it is.”