To Justine Myers and her 16-year-old son, Nathan, their casual Tuesday afternoon of shooting guns out in the woods of northern Colorado was just a fun-filled mother-son outing. To local law enforcement and school administration, this event was considered a threat.
On August 27, Justine picked up Nathan from Loveland High School to drive outside of town for an afternoon of shooting practice. Nathan posted a video to Snapchat, documenting the five pistols and a rifle he was preparing to shoot. (The rifle, an AR-15, cannot be made out in the video, because it was stored in a case.) Evans also typed out the message, "Finna be lit." (For anybody under 30, this roughly translates to "About to have a fun time.")
Upon reentering cellphone range, the two discovered several missed calls, voicemails, and text messages. One of the callers, Justine's ex-husband, had been approached by police about the video. According to the police, a message was received through "Safe2Tell," a Colorado-based reporting platform that allows individuals to submit anonymous tips to alert law enforcement of potential threats or risks. Once received, the reporting mechanism automatically triggers an immediate review by local law enforcement to assess the validity of the threat.
Loveland Police reviewed the video, interviewed the parents, and quickly determined that Nathan was not a threat.
"We thought it was done," Justine tells Reason.
The following morning, Justine received a voicemail from the Thompson Valley School District, stating that, until further notice, her son was not allowed to return to school. Justine contacted the school to try to make the same case that she did to the police, but the school proved to be more difficult. Both mother and son attempted to request the homework that Nathan was missing in his absence, but to no avail.
When school officials returned the phone calls, they informed Justine that she needed to attend a "threat assessment hearing" on August 29 where she would defend her son in front of a seven-person panel, comprised of school administration, counselors, teachers, and law enforcement.
Before the hearing, the Myers' story went viral after Rally for our Rights, a Colorado-based pro-gun rights group, broke the news. As a result, school officials backpedaled. The assessment hearing, which traditionally last about an hour, was over in five minutes, according to Justine. The panel seemed to be in a hurry to clear Nathan's name.
"They were really trying hard to get us out of there quickly," says Justine.
During the hearing, the school's principal, Peggy Johnson, alluded "to the story that was already out there," suggesting that school officials were well aware of the public backlash they were facing online before the hearing started.
Upon completion of the hearing, Nathan was allowed to return to school, which he did. According to Justine, her son endured significant taunting upon his return, with students calling him a "school shooter." The mockery was bad enough that Nathan begged his parents to be homeschooled.
This incident sheds light on how local authorities respond to tips of potential threats or risks, especially through anonymous platforms like Safe2Tell. "It is definitely a flawed system," says Justine.
"Why we're upset is this should have been squashed on Tuesday night," says Justine. "It should have never gotten to this point."
School officials claimed that they did not receive the official clearance from police, which occurred on the evening of August 27, until the following day, August 28—18 hours after the fact. (Thompson Valley School District did not respond to requests for comment.) If true, law enforcement failed to communicate the existence of a potential threat to the town square that was already abuzz with gossip. If false, the school fumbled the communication handoff, suggesting some institutional blindspots that need to be addressed—especially if an actual threat were to occur.
Neither should make parents and students feel safe.
Founded in 2004, Safe2Tell was created in response to the Columbine High School shooting in April 1999, in order to "provide an anonymous venue for parents, students, teachers, school administrators, and law enforcement to share information," according to its website. Safe2Tell sought to break "the code of silence" that leaves possible risks and threats unreported, as well remove the stigma that surrounds being a "snitch."
According to the Colorado attorney general's office, which oversees the program, use of Safe2Tell has steadily increased each year. During the 2018–2019 fiscal year, Safe2Tell recorded 19,861 "actionable" tips — 4,400 more than the previous year. The calls are organized into categories to determine the issue addressed. The most frequently addressed issues include suicide (3,668), drugs (2,164), and bullying (1,871).
Despite the high volume of calls concerning suicide, Safe2Tell is not the ideal resource for those struggling with self-harm or depression. Colorado's Department of Human Services also operates Colorado Crisis Services, a hotline that focuses primarily on mental health issues. The crisis line—which received 173,547 calls, texts, or chats last year—operates separately from Safe2Tell. Confusion among students, not only regarding which service they should use, but also the existence of either in the first place, is common, according to mental health professionals.
This confusion has resulted in incongruous responses to sensitive issues. Safe2Tell has been criticized for its inability to appropriately address the complicated situations occurring on the other end of the phone line. Sarah Davidon, research director for Mental Health Colorado, shared an anecdote with The Colorado Sun about a troubled student, who called Safe2Tell in need of mental health assistance. "She needed a crisis line," said Davidon. Instead of deploying a mental health specialist to assist the troubled student, police were dispatched to her home.
Bringing law enforcement into the picture also increases the risk of "swatting," or intentionally filing false reports with law enforcement as a means of harassing people. Of the total number of tips received last year, Safe2Tell estimates that 2.4 percent, or roughly 470 incidents, were intentionally false reports. (Sadly, Safe2Tell has earned the pejorative nickname "Safe2Swat" among Colorado students.)
In this age of ever-present fears of school shootings, efforts to prevent such tragedies run the risk of undermining the civil liberties of the falsely accused or, worse, dropping the ball when responding to an actual threat.