State-backed safety app lags behind competitors

The state has spent more than $2 million on iWatchTexas since 2018.

By Michael MarksNovember 15, 2022 1:06 pm, ,

Texas officials have committed millions of taxpayer dollars to a public safety app that is lightly used compared to its alternatives.

After the shooting at Santa Fe High School in 2018, state leaders supported expanding the iWatchTexas app, which allows the public to report tips to law enforcement. The expansion included new features specifically for schools.

A recent report by the Dallas Morning News shows that despite the public backing, few school districts use iWatchTexas compared to some of its competitors. Lauren McGaughy, an investigative reporter for the paper, spoke to the Texas Standard about how much the state has spent so far. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How is iWatchTexas supposed to work?

Lauren McGaughy: iWatchTexas started out as a statewide suspicious activity reporting tool for anything, not just schools. Then it was expanded, as you said, in 2018 to include a specific school-related tool that had a dropdown menu and different campuses, and you could choose a campus and then report some kind of potentially suspicious activity. The choices are really broad. [They have] everything from a weapons issue to eating disorders, that kind of thing. There’s a ton of categories, and it’s supposed to encourage anyone – students, teachers, everyday people on the street, parents – to anonymously report behavior that may lead to violence on campuses.

I presume that this is an app that’s available at the usual places, the app stores and that sort of thing.

That’s right. And there’s also a website as well, if someone wants to visit it online.

So how much is iWatchTexas being used in Texas school districts?

Well, that was our first question. The governor has really been promoting this tool since the Uvalde shooting. And we wanted to know – how often is it being used? How much does it cost? Is there an effectiveness there that we can point to after the Santa Fe shooting? And we found that it’s not being used very much, especially compared to other suspicious activity reporting tools that districts have already implemented – some for many years. We found that in the three and a half years after the Santa Fe shooting in 2018, that there were fewer than a thousand school-related tips that came into iWatchTexas. This is compared to something like 40,000 that came into a different reporting app called STOPit over a slightly longer period, five years. And that’s just Texas schools.

Tell me about these other apps that you’re referring to. What did you say, “STOPit”? Is that right?

That’s right. There’s a number of other suspicious activity reporting tools out there that are specifically tailored for schools. The STOPit app is particularly popular in Texas. A number of school districts use it, some very large ones. Then there’s another one called the Say Something Suspicious Activity Reporting Tool, I think is the full name. It’s a little long. And that came after the Sandy Hook shooting as kind of the brainchild of individuals responding to that. So there’s a number of other tools that were already on the market when Texas decided to expand iWatchTexas to schools.

So we have these commercially-available apps. How much has the state put into the iWatchTexas app since 2018?

We know that they have allocated about $2.2 million in taxpayer money for iWatchTexas, about roughly half a million a year.

Why have state officials been pushing the iWatchTexas app when it appears there are these commercially-available apps that people seem to be gravitating to and actually using?

Well, we reached out to the governor’s office and the Department of Public Safety, which runs iWatchTexas, and asked them that question. The governor said that they believe that iWatchTexas is a better tool because it’s a statewide app. It’s run through a state agency and it allows them to bring together and compare potential threats across the state. So if someone has a threat in a particular jurisdiction and then they show up on the iWatchTexas app, maybe they’ll be able to compare those things. The school districts respond and say that iWatchTexas doesn’t have some of the best practices [and] tools that it finds in the tools that it’s already implemented, and it just doesn’t work as well for them in the school setting.

Plus, they say they’ve already gotten buy-in from the students on the app that they’re using. Since students are already using that other app, they want to stick with it because it’s been shown to work for them.

Is there any evidence that either of the commercially-available apps or the iWatchTexas app are having an impact, that they’re actually effective at preventing incidents of violence, or intervening before something bad happens?

That’s one of the most important questions – Does it work? The commercially-available apps – STOPit, the Say Something app – they each provided us with data on how many tips they’ve received, what happens to those tips, whether they’re routed to a law enforcement agency, whether they result in some kind of law enforcement action – and Say Something actually tracks and defines what they would consider a credible potential attack on a school and how many times they believe a tip has thwarted that. They believe that there’ve been about 11 potential incidents that have been thwarted by tips to the Say Something app.

Conversely, DPS refused to provide that information to us. I will say that iWatchTexas DPS has pointed to anecdotal evidence that it works. They say there was at least one incident where someone reported some concerning posts on a social media platform called Discord, and then that was routed through iWatchTexas. Police responded and found that a student had killed his parents and was planning or said that he was planning an attack on a school and they were able to intervene before that may have happened.

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