Thousands of schools are turning to apps to combat bullying and violence. Do they work?

Schools across the country are using apps to address a variety of issues, from bullying to mental health problems and potential acts of violence. Experts say this approach has its limitations.

Mass shootings, bullying, students' mental health, and the threat of firearm use have become increasingly serious problems in U.S. schools over the past two decades.

After the pandemic, which took a toll on students and forced many schools to adopt new technologies for remote learning, more and more schools are turning to apps to address these issues.

"During the pandemic, tech companies really started positioning themselves as solutions for schools based on apps," said Alexis Hancock of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Perhaps this is to be expected – who doesn't like high-tech solutions for everything? – and it's surprising that thousands of schools are recommending these apps to students and parents.

The idea of using apps to address various problems, from cyberbullying to mental health crises and shootings, is not new. Corporate America is also exploring this path. But it seems that developments are beginning to take place within the technical departments of various schools.

Craig Hansen said that during the pandemic, he realized that students were facing more challenges than ever. In addition to the trauma caused by the pandemic, they suffered from prolonged isolation from their peers and were deprived of many of their usual activities. They still had to deal with the usual school pressures. So, he wanted to find a way to help. Hansen is the Director of Emergency Services at Questar III BOCES, a school that also provides educational and administrative services to the Hudson Valley districts in New York.

"We knew that this would be a good opportunity to try to get a grant to help support our schools in this area, knowing about the stress and mental health factors we were observing," he told NBC News.

Companies like STOPit Solutions, Raptor Technologies, Navigate360, Anonymous Alerts, and Sandy Hook Promise offer apps with a wide range of security and monitoring features, such as anonymous threat reporting, visitor tracking, silent alarms, and communication with law enforcement and mental health consultants. Several states have developed their own reporting systems with similar functions.

These companies claim to provide schools and students with tools that can prevent tragedy. Undoubtedly, they are becoming widely adopted.

Hansen said he applied for a grant from the Department of Justice and received funding to implement a program that would help address the issues students were facing. He considered several options and chose STOPit Solutions because the company has a 24/7 monitoring center where reports are evaluated. Fifteen local school districts joined his application, which was ultimately accepted. They are now beginning to use this system.

"It's another tool that will allow students and families to report something and get the help kids need," he said to NBC News.

STOPit Solutions, a private company existing since 2013, reports that its app is now used in 8,800 schools in every state in the U.S.

"We give kids a simple, fast, and powerful way to reach out when they're in trouble, and this can be an external threat, a campus threat, or an internal threat to themselves, which is more common these days," said CEO K. Parkhill Mays III.

Mays said the company receives 300 to 500 messages from students every night, and about 10.5% of them represent an immediate threat that requires police or mental health specialists to intervene.

It takes more than just an app When it comes to the nightmare scenario of school shootings, the unspoken truth in all of this is the following: parents and school administrators can do little about U.S. gun policy or the state of the healthcare system in the near future, both of which are often cited as factors in these issues.

But many school officials say they need to do something. And in many cases, they are obligated to take action. Several states across the country have enacted versions of the Alyssa Law, which requires schools to install silent panic alarms for emergencies.

Craig Hansen said he sought a grant to fund the STOPit app in Hudson Valley schools because the state of New York was planning to pass this law.

In this context, something like an app that can report a dangerous situation or individual appears to be much more valuable.

However, according to experts, such apps can be a double-edged sword. While they can genuinely help students going through crises, they should be used with caution, especially when it comes to potential school violence. They have expressed concerns about whether students might use these reporting tools to harass their peers.