May 9, 2014 Updated: May 9, 2014 at 11:26 am
How important is Safe2Tell, the nonprofit agency created by a Colorado Springs woman in 2004? It gives students statewide a place to anonymously report threats against schools and individuals, possible suicides, incidents of bullying and drug abuse.
So important that lawmakers in the 2014 Colorado General Assembly passed, without a single vote of opposition, a bill that absorbs Safe2Tell into the Attorney General's Office, making it a permanent, state-funded agency with an annual budget of about $300,000.
If you are like me, you are asking yourself: Our Legislature, as sharply divided as any, unanimously passed a bill to expand government and spend money? Not a single vote against in any committee or anywhere along the line?
Lawmakers passed the bill, expected to be signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, because they are convinced Safe2Tell, founded by Susan Payne, should no longer exist at the whim of grants and donations.
And they are convinced Safe2Tell is saving lives of schoolchildren bent on suicide or harming their classmates and teachers in an attack. It's hard to disagree when you consider the numbers.
In the agency's first school year, 2004-05, it handled 102 reports as it tried to establish its identity with schools statewide.
Ten years later, after countless visits to schools and classrooms and other forms of outreach, Safe2Tell is well-known and has fielded 2,800 reports during the 2013-14 school year, said Natasha Sansoni, 39, who has worked side by side with her 50-year-old sister, Susan, for years at the agency.
Of those 2,800 reports, 534 reports were of schoolchildren threatening suicide.
And 503 more were reports of bullying in schools.
Third on the list were 286 reports of drug abuse.
And then there are the reports of planned school attacks. Safe2Tell's website, toll-free phone and text hotlines have fielded 49 attack threats this school year.
I talked to the sisters, Susan and Natasha, about their work as the only full-time employees at Safe2Tell. As many in our community know, scratching together enough grant money and donations to keep a nonprofit afloat can be a full-time job.
Then comes the real work of dealing with something as urgent as fielding tips, assessing the threats, and coordinating with schools, law enforcement agencies, counselors or whoever might be needed, depending on the circumstances.
"Every morning I get up and go through every report," Natasha said. "I see so many hurting kids out there."
With 2,800 reports and nearly three months left in the school year, Susan and Natasha have handled about 10 a day, seven days a week because the reports come in around the clock.
Natasha said 99 percent of all reports come from concerned bystanders, not victims reporting they've been bullied or are going to kill themselves or cut themselves or lash out at someone else. It's kids concerned about their friends and classmates.
Over the years, the sisters and their staff have prevented more than 1,600 suicides, based on outcome reports filed by schools. I'd call that one heck of an achievement.
Another huge success is in the category of planned school attacks. Since 2004, Safe2Tell has received 316 reports of suspected plans to attack schools. Based on investigations by authorities, Safe2Tell prevented 39 attacks. Those are reports that were deemed credible and resulted in arrests and weapons taken from homes.
Still, I imagined the toll it must take on the sisters to have to wade through such troubling reports every morning.
The daily reports have sometimes included photos taken from a student's Facebook page with threatening language or worse.
"We've had 'goodbye' letters downloaded to our website," Natasha said. "We've had Facebook posts saying: 'Goodbye to the world. I can't handle this anymore.'
"We've even gotten pictures of students with guns to their heads. We see that kind of thing every day. I'm a mom, and it breaks your heart sometimes."
I prefer to start my day reading Rip Haywire and Dilbert. Who needs that kind of pressure each morning?
"Susan and I talk a lot about the emotional stress," Natasha said. "There's a lot. At the end of the day, I say a prayer for the kids we've seen come through the program."
Of course, it's not all depressing. There's the satisfaction of knowing suicides are being prevented and kids are getting counseling. Or they are being protected from bullies. Or entire schools are safe from attacks thanks to Safe2Tell.
"So many good things have happened," Natasha said. "That's the thing that helps me get through it."
Clearly, Susan and Natasha have a passion for their cause. That's why they worked so hard to keep it going and persuade lawmakers to make it a state agency.
They are thrilled with the bill's passage . with one disappointing exception.
To ensure Safe2Tell survives, the sisters knew they needed to persuade lawmakers to adopt it and provide it funding.
But that security blanket came at a cost. The sisters will no longer be the Safe-2Tell team.
As a state agency, it appears the Safe2Tell office will have to move to Denver with the rest of the attorney general's staff.
And Susan, as its founder and director, can't just hire her sister again. There are nepotism rules.
"We were shocked when we learned that," Natasha said. "But I'll just find something else to do."
Susan is disappointed, as well.
"That's the bitter part of this whole thing," Susan said. "I feel really bad about it."
But that's how important Safe2Tell is.
Important enough to bring lawmakers together.
And to tear sisters apart from the thing they created.
Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets.
Safe2Tell has a toll-free, 24-hour hotline where students and adults can make anonymous reports about a crime or potentially dangerous situation or fears for a person's safety. To submit an anonymous tip, contact Safe2Tell on its website, www.Safe2Tell.org, or by phone at 877-543-SAFE (7233). For questions, call the Safe2Tell office at 520-7435.