Student tipsters

Sheriff hopes new Text-a-Tip program will increase communication

Students can now send anonymous tips to law enforcement without fear of being discovered through the new “Text-a-Tip” program. The initiative was unveiled Monday, Feb. 1, at the Blount County Emergency 911 Communications Center.

The system allows students to send anonymous tips regarding potential crimes or problems on school campuses. The program was launched at all four high schools in Blount. The sheriff’s office hopes to eventually include the alternative high school, the middle schools and then the general public.

Heritage High School SRO Jeff Hicks with the Blount County Sheriff’s Office spearheaded the effort that began this past fall. “We were looking at a lot of things. Schools are always planning how to respond to situations, and we were looking for the best way to get information out,” Hicks said. “A friend of mine who is an SRO in Colorado started this program last year at about this time and got a lot of information from the school.”

Hicks said he asked Fifth Judicial Drug Task Force director Capt. Ronnie Talbot to help “I thought we could curb some problems at school that stem from prescription drug abuse,” he said.

The SRO said this initiative is the first of its kind in this area, and it should help students feel more at ease about letting law enforcement know when something is wrong. “In this day and time, kids are always worried about being called a snitch. This gives them an opportunity and way to reach out,” he said. “If they want to give information, they can text it to this number.”

The website is also linked to each school’s website so students can also click on the icon and send their text that way also, Hicks said.

According to the sheriff’s office, individuals can send an anonymous crime tip via a text message from their cell phone. Text message tips are completely secure and anonymous. Once the text message is sent, the tipster will receive a text message with their confidential code number so they may add additional information to the original tip, if necessary. As long as the communication has not been stopped, then either the Blount County 911 Communication Center or the Blount County Sheriff’s Office will be able to re-contact tipsters via text message regarding their tip.

The students will be given a predetermined number in which to send a text message. The tipster will then type a key word before the tip message. Blount County 911 receives an alert that they have received a tip, and will type a message back to the tipster asking questions to discern what the situation is and how it should be handled.

During school, the tips will be handled by school resource officers. When school is not in session, patrol officers will be responsible for tips of a criminal nature.

The “Text-a-Tip” system cost is $1,200 per year, plus $229 for each school’s access code. The Fifth Judicial District Drug Task Force, which is comprised of officers and deputies of the Alcoa Police Department, Maryville Police Department and the Blount County Sheriff’s Office, is paying for the program, with no cost to taxpayers.

Blount County Sheriff James Berrong was encouraged by the new program. “It is a natural step for us to take advantage of the cell phone technology to assist in crime fighting,” Berrong said. “Most high school students now have cell phones. For students to have the ability to provide law enforcement with information about a potential crime or problem, and remain anonymous while doing so, is a win-win for everyone. This technology is going to open doors for us that have, until now, remained closed.”

Berrong said there are plans to expand the program for Blount County, Alcoa, and Maryville middle schools later in the year.

The SRO said 911 Emergency Communications personnel monitor the system around the clock. “If someone texts us information that is pressing that is an extreme emergency, say we had a student post that another student was bringing a weapon to school and we got that information the night before, we could address it that day before school,” he said.

Hicks said “Text-a-Tip” will help him do his job more efficiently at Heritage High School. “There’s only one of me and 1,700 students. This is a way they can communicate with us,” he said.

The “Text-a-Tip” system was introduced by Anderson Software in Nacogdoches, Texas. The system is currently in use by more than 600 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada. For a demonstration of how “Text-a-Tip” works, go to www.SMSCrimeTips.com.

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