2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Payne fights to protect schoolchildren through Safe2Tell

Published: January 17, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin
Susan Payne, founder and executive director of the Safe2Tell program, described it's importance during a news conference Jan. 7, 2014, in Denver. The program, which supports a hotline for students to use in reporting safety issues at school, has been funded in the past by private grants. Supporters of a bill that would now have taxpayers fund the program gathered at the State Capitol Tuesday afternoon, January 7, 2014. Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino is at right in the photo. Photo By Karl Gehring/The Denver Post

Susan Payne, founder and executive director of the Safe2Tell program, described it’s importance during a news conference Jan. 7, 2014, in Denver. She founded Safe2Tell in 2004 as a non-profit organization funded by private grants. It sponsors a statewide hotline for students to anonymously report threats. Senate Bill 2 would transform it into a state agency with a $250,000 annual budget supported by taxpayers. Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino is at right. Photo By Karl Gehring/The Denver Post

Next week, Colorado Springs native Susan Payne will go to Denver to fight for passage of a bill before the General Assembly that would transform the Safe2Tell nonprofit organization she founded as a permanent, state-funded department within the Attorney General’s office.

In an era of seemingly endless headlines about school shootings, student suicides and bullying, Payne feels a huge sense of urgency to win passage of Senate Bill 2.

In her mind, Payne, 49, will be fighting for school children across Colorado and the need to create safe learning environments by ensuring they always have a place to call, email or text, anonymously, when they suspect friends are going to hurt themselves or others.

“Since we founded Safe2Tell in 2004, we’ve learned we can create safer communities and safe schools through intelligence gathering,” Payne told me on Thursday.

“Investing in early detection and prevention is critical. And we have to eliminate barriers to reporting by offering a way for kids to anonymously report what they are hearing and seeing so we can intervene.”

It’s a lesson she’s learned over her career in law enforcement, which dates to her days as a 9-1-1 emergency dispatcher, her hiring by the Colorado Springs Police Department in 1990, her work as a patrol officer, detective, school resource officer and crime prevention officer, and finally running Crimestoppers, where she helped develop the “Stop It Before It Happens” violence prevention hotline.

The local hotline debuted not long before the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and it caught the attention of authorities studying the school shooting and looking for ways it might have been prevented.

“What we’ve learned is that often kids notice changes in behaviors among their friends or hear things,” she said. “If we teach them to speak up earlier, we can interrupt dangerous behavior and intervene and prevent these tragedies.”

Her efforts led to the creation of the Safe2Tell as a nonprofit funded by the Colorado Trust, the El Pomar Foundation and other grant-making organizations.

It operated under the Colorado State Patrol on a budget of about $100,000 a year for the first few years and eventually was taken under the umbrella of the Attorney General’s office.

Safe2Tell accepts calls and emails around the clock, seven days a week, which are fielded by the State Patrol. They are screened for urgency and alerts go out immediately to Payne and her staff as well as to local authorities, school officials and their trained “threat assessment teams” — also a product of Safe2Tell.

But the agency has struggled for funding each year even as the volume of tips has soared and the technology for collecting them has expanded.

Consider that Safe2Tell is credited by authorities for stopping over 1,000 suicides in 10 years and at least 31 planned school attacks.

And then there is this statistic, cited by Gov. John Hickenlooper at a Jan. 7 news conference on the bill, which would grant the program a $250,000 annual budget.

Besides the governor, the bill has broad, bipartisan support. Check the list of co-sponsors: Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland.

“It has already received reports of 16 planned attacks since the beginning of the 2013-14 school year,” Hickenlooper said.

In fact, going back to 2004, Safe2Tell has received 282 reports of threatened school attacks. Payne said each report was investigated by law enforcement and school officials and 251 were classified as high-risk threats.

Of that total, 31 were deemed very high risks and authorities believe intervention prevented tragedies.

“That’s my passion,” Payne said. “We’re trying to prevent violence. And this method is proven effective with tangible results.”

I have no doubt about Payne’s passion because I’ve known her, personally, since our sons began playing basketball together in middle school.

And it’s not something she stumbled into. She has deep roots in the business of serving and protecting.

Her father, the late Bill Thiede, served on CSPD as a SWAT commander and the first commander of the Falcon Division. She was a cousin to the late Lou Smit, the legendary detective. And her brother, Travis Thiede, served on CSPD before joining the FBI.

It doesn’t end there. Her husband, Rich Payne, also is a long-tenured CSPD officer.

I’m guessing all Payne’s family history and passion for her cause will come through Thursday afternoon when she is expected to testify before the Senate Education Committee.

And don’t expect her to be satisfied just to get it passed. She’s got a lot of ideas for how to make it even easier for kids to report with texting and mobile apps and other technology.

This bill is just the start. But it’s important.

“We need to make sure Safe2Tell continues long into the future,” she said. “This is an important investment and well worth making for state government.”

Susan Payne posed with the fifth-grade class at Foothills Elementary School on April 19, 2006, to publicize her Safe2Tell program, launched in 2004 in response to the Columbine High school shooting. Rocky Mountain News file photo.

Susan Payne posed with the fifth-grade class at Foothills Elementary School on April 19, 2006, to publicize her Safe2Tell program, launched in 2004 in response to the Columbine High school shooting. Rocky Mountain News file photo.