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Mich. student safety hotline awaits final vote

DETROIT (AP) — Supporters of a statewide student safety hotline patterned after one established in Colorado in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre hope to clear a final hurdle once schools are back in session.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed a budget bill this month that includes money to develop and run the OK-2-SAY hotline, which would provide for anonymous reporting of threats and violence. The green light for launch is legislative approval, and that's halfway home: The Senate unanimously passed the enabling bill and it awaits consideration by the House after members return for voting in late August.

"We're very optimistic that the House will approve it. There's no hard deadline but the sooner ... the better," said Joy Yearout, who is the spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette and whose office would oversee the program with the Michigan State Police. "We're ready to work with them and move it as soon as possible."

House leaders aren't voicing concerns, but it's not clear how fast the proposal will move. House Speaker Jase Bolger's spokesman Ari Adler said the GOP leadership is reviewing the idea and the legislation "but no decision has been made yet on whether it will move through the House or when that might happen."

Joanne Spry is optimistic the wait won't be too long. The superintendent of Cadillac Area Public Schools, who participated in Colorado's Safe2Tell program several years ago while working there as a high school principal in Woodland Park, brought the director of that program to Michigan to meet with legislators, law enforcement officials and others. The reaction, she said, was overwhelmingly positive, which led the northwestern Lower Michigan district to scrap its plans to work directly with the Colorado program and wait for Michigan's to get up and running.

Spry said her experiences suggest the program would be worthwhile. While working in Colorado, she said, someone called the hotline to report that a student was contemplating suicide. Authorities immediately connected the troubled student with a counselor "before any harm occurred."

"As a principal and knowing first hand that as much as you develop the positive relationships with your students and staff, you're not always going to hear about everything that happens in your schools," Spry said. "There is no downside to this — to have a common understanding and reporting system where students can call in anonymously and be able to say in kid talk, if you will, that I am concerned that I see a drug deal happening, I can talk to you about my concerns about a student that is considering harming themselves. ... We can put the proper interventions in place to prevent any tragedies or harm."

Yearout said the $3.5 million program will be paid for through the state's lawsuit settlement proceeds fund, which collects money that's not specifically earmarked for any other purpose.

Advocates say the success of similar programs in Michigan, Colorado and elsewhere bolster the case for going statewide. But those programs and their achievements can also serve as a case against duplication and an argument for teaming up with another program.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency says there are efforts already underway in Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Kent, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, Ottawa, St. Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne counties. The analysis adds that the state police already offer telephone hotline services and agency representatives have said it could be made more useful and better advertised.

Yearout said there's nothing stopping OK-2-SAY from cooperating with existing county programs and improving on those offered by the state.

"We certainly are ready and willing to work with local programs," she said. "Not every school district has a program ... available to them. This is an opportunity to expand an important opportunity for student safety to every child in Michigan."