One year after a student shot two classmates to death in Marshall County, Kentucky and a former student massacred 17 students and educators at a high school in Parkland, Florida, communities continue to search for ways to bring a sense of safety back to the classroom.
Kentucky has a free school safety tipline created by a former teacher and administrator who worked in the district where a deadly high school shooting occurred more than two decades ago.
Karen McCuiston was a teacher in McCracken County schools prior to becoming the district’s public relations director in 1997. She never expected that three months into her new job she would be the spokesperson for a tragedy that, until that time, was unimaginable in rural Kentucky. A 14-year-old student shot three classmates to death at Heath High School in West Paducah on Dec. 1, 1997.
McCuiston was deeply affected by the shooting, as was the entire community, where families have deep roots and generations of connections to each other and the schools. McCuiston's husband was a teacher at Heath High School at the time and her daughter graduated from the high school the previous year.
Now McCuiston administers the website for the Kentucky Center for School Safety and is director of its resource center based at Murray State University. Four years ago, McCuiston created STOP, which stands for Safety Tipline Online Prevention. By developing the tipline and offering the set-up and training at no cost to school districts across the state, McCuiston has been able to use her passion to create safer schools fueled by the tragedy at Heath High school 21 years ago.
Although tips are confidential, McCuiston says she knows from a story in the Lexington Herald Leader this past March that police got a information through the STOP Tipline that an 18-year-old Fayette County student was talking about shooting up a school and killing himself. Police acted on the tip and found that the student had a rifle and ammunition, and charged him with terroristic threatening.
McCuiston said just knowing how the STOP tipline worked in that one incident is confirmation that her passion for school safety is valuable to schools and communities across Kentucky.
“That was a very possible threat, it could have possibly been something really sad happen, and that was not long after Parkland,” said McCuiston.
The Barren County School District is among those using the STOP tipline. Assistant Superintendent Cortni Crews said it’s an important way to communicate concerns for students who might not feel comfortable talking with a school counselor or resource officer.
“Typically what we are seeing through our STOP tipline is students sharing concerns about other students that we might not know otherwise," said Crews. "For example, self-harm has been an issue that students will report on other students.”
If there is an issue involving potential self-harm, the information on the tipline is in no way punitive, said Crews. The information would go to the school prinicipal and a school counselor who would discreetly contact the parents or student.
Crews said most of the tips in the Barren County district come when schools are closed at night or during holidays. She said middle school students generally are the most frequent users of the STOP tipline. Each tip goes to the email of three district administrators who notify the school principal, counselors, or police, if necessary.
There are no restrictions on the type of tips that can be sent to the STOP tipline. Tips might be about bullying, a student in a living situation where there are illegal drugs or addiction, physcial or sexual abuse, or concern about a possible suicide.
The STOP tipline uses email notifications, so no one has to monitor a website to find the information. While tips do reach district adminsitrators quickly by email, emergencies should still be reported to 911.
Tips are confidential and anonymous, but parents or students can leave a phone number or email address if they'd like to have someone in the district call them about their concerns, and that is frequently done.
Of Kentucky’s 194 school districts, 102 are now using the free STOP tipline. It is part of the website for the Kentucky Center for School Safety.
Murray State University is one of three satellite sites for the Kentucky Center for School Safety. The others are at the Kentucky School Boards Association and Eastern Kentucky University.