‘Safe and Sound Iowa’ app launches as schools face swatting calls

By: - March 21, 2023 3:18 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds gave an update on the string of false school violence reports before speaking about the new “Safe and Sound Iowa” anonymous reporting app Tuesday, March 21. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

As Iowa schools and law enforcement grapple with a flood of “swatting” calls – false reports of emergency situations to bring law enforcement to the scene – Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the Governor’s School Safety Bureau’s launch of a new, anonymous threat-reporting app.

Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens said Tuesday that 30 localities reported receiving fake calls on active shooters in schools that same morning, with Clinton High School canceling classes for the day. Schools in other communities including Des Moines, Muscatine, Iowa City and Davenport, as well as Lee, Story, Cerro Gordo and Polk Counties reported receiving calls, Bayens said.

Reynolds said the swatting calls received this morning show the importance of giving Iowa’s school-safety efforts more attention.

“It’s what no governor, no parent or anybody – superintendents, teachers, kids – want to hear,” Reynolds said. “And we’re grateful and just so thankful that that’s what it was.”

The incident was discussed Tuesday as the governor and state officials announced the launch of “Safe and Sound Iowa,” an app created for concerned students, teachers and parents to anonymously report potential threats without fear of retaliation. The development comes nine months after the governor launched the bureau, which provides funding and training to schools and local law enforcement in preventing and responding to school shootings and other violent incidents.

Don Schnitker, the School Safety Bureau’s chief, said in 80% of school shootings, at least one person reports noticing concerning behavior or activity preceding the person committing a violent act. The anonymous reporting system — which also includes options for reporting by website at SafeandSoundIowa.gov and by phone at 800-224-6018 — will let law enforcement and schools attempt to prevent, rather than react, to violence, he said.

The app was developed with Navigate360, a school safety technology company. Once a state staff member talks with the reporter through a live-chat discussion, the information will be passed on to local law enforcement and school officials to address the problem.

“That person with advanced knowledge is most likely going to be another student or teacher,” Schnitker said. “That is why having a tool like Safe and Sound Iowa available in every school is critical. It gives every student and every teacher a voice in their safety.”

Requiring a live, two-way communication between the reporter and dispatcher will help weed out incidents of false reports, Schnitker said, based on other states’ experience in setting up similar reporting systems.

At the news conference, Reynolds and state law enforcement officials shared updates on the school trainings and safety assessments that have been completed, as well as future efforts like the reporting app. So far, 455 public school districts and accredited private school systems have completed vulnerability assessments, with a total of 1,260 buildings assessed and the state creating reports on each of school building’s potential issue areas. Districts are now working through the process of applying for grants to make the recommended improvements.

Reynolds initially proposed the School Safety Bureau in 2020, but lawmakers did not approve funding for the program. The 2022 launch began with $100 million in federal funds provided through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. The governor said in June that this funding will keep the program running through 2026, and that she plans to ask the legislature to provide state funding after that point.

Reynolds announced the bureau’s launch in June after shootings in Des Moines and Ames, and the mass shooting at an Uvalde, Texas school. In that announcement, Reynolds told reporters the bureau’s focus would be on the “cause” of the shootings: “the person who picks up the gun and turns it against another.”

The bureau is working with the Iowa Department of Education to roll out the app to schools Tuesday.

“We want Iowans to know that our work is really just beginning,” Schnitker said. “… Because our kids deserve to learn in an environment that values their safety.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.