In a mobile phone video filmed at a Houston high school this April, dozens of students gather in a stairwell to watch a fight. They stand by as a girl, armed with a sock that has a combination lock in the toe, viciously beats another girl to the point that she will later have multiple staples inserted into her head at the emergency room.
Tim Porter is developing an app that he believes can stop violence like this on school grounds.
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"If they would have had the app, someone would have alerted student administrators," he says, noting that someone watching the fight already had their phone in hand to take video. "It’s just the way that kids communicate now. They all use apps."
Porter's app, Stop Bullies, allows students to anonymously report bullying by submitting messages, photos or videos to school administrators, who are alerted in real time. Each message includes a GPS tag that could, at least theoretically, help adults intervene. Customized versions of the app will go live for the first time in two schools this August.
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About a third of 12 to 18 year olds report being bullied at school, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics. And in the last 10 years, the issue has become much more visible than it has been in the past.
Between 1999 and 2010, state legislators enacted more than 120 bills to address bullying in schools. Most states, including Texas, now have laws that require schools to create anti-bullying policies. Schools are also being urged by everyone from Justin Bieber to Barack Obama to take bullying seriously -- and many of them are offering apps as an option for reporting incidents.
"The students are always connected with their phones," explains Adam Scott, a teacher at a public magnet high school in Connecticut. "It makes it more frictionless. It also keeps them anonymous."
Students decided to create a bullying app for an assignment in his technology class. It's called Back Off Bully (BOB), and they can use it report bullying incidents, make an appointment with a school counselor or access anti-bullying resources.
"Students are also using it in a proactive way," Scott says, "saying things like 'watch it or I'm going to report you to BOB.'"
Instead of launching a dedicated app for bullying, other schools have built a bully-reporting function into their general apps. Steve Young, the CTO of a school district in Texas, for instance, helped create a bully report function for the district's website and app.
So far, he says there have been about 67 reports made through the tool, about a third of which were legitimate.
In a country where 83% of middle-schoolers and 85% of high schoolers have phones, apps provide a bullying reporting tool that is easily accessible to them, real-time and anonymous.
That doesn't necessarily make apps a perfect solution to the bullying. About 24% of teenage students still aren't allowed to carry phones at school, according to a 2010 Pew report. And developing apps, or paying to use one like Porter developed, can be expensive.
Apps also don't guarantee schools will react effectively to reports they receive. Take the case in which the girl was beaten with a combination lock -- her mother reported that she had been threatened hours before the fight took place. The school's principal later told her the conversation had slipped his mind.
If the video of the fight had been sent to a principal while it was taking place, rather than to a media outlet days later, would someone have intervened? It's not a guarantee. But making it easy to anonymously report fights and other incidents can't hurt.
As Texas U.S. Rep. Al Green said at a press conference following the fight: "Too many children know an incident is imminent, yet don’t want to report it and be labeled as a snitch."
This story originally published on Mashable here.