2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Ensuring future of Safe2Tell comes at steep cost to Colorado Springs founder, sister

Published: May 9, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin
Sisters Natasha Sansoni, left, and Susan Payne of Colorado Springs, seen in an August 2011 photo, have been the driving force behind Safe2Tell, a nonprofit Susan founded in 2004 to give students and parents statewide a place to anonymously report threats against schools, individuals, possible suicides, incidents of bullying and drug abuse. The Colorado General Assembly voted unanimously to absorb Safe2Tell into the Attorney General's office as a state-funded agency. Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign the bill. Courtesy photo.

Sisters Natasha Sansoni, left, and Susan Payne of Colorado Springs, seen in an August 2011 photo, have been the driving force behind Safe2Tell, a nonprofit Susan founded in 2004 to give students and parents statewide a place to anonymously report threats against schools, individuals, possible suicides, incidents of bullying and drug abuse. The Colorado General Assembly voted unanimously to absorb Safe2Tell into the Attorney General’s office as a state-funded agency. Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign the bill. Courtesy photo.

How important is Safe2Tell, the nonprofit agency created by a Colorado Springs woman in 2004 to give students statewide a place to anonymously report threats against schools, individuals, possible suicides, incidents of bullying or drug abuse?

So important that lawmakers in the 2014 Colorado General Assembly passed, without a single vote of opposition, a bill that absorbs Safe2Tell into the Attorney General’s office, making it a permanent, state-funded agency with an annual budget of about $300,000.

If you are like me, you are asking yourself: Our Legislature, as sharply divided as any, unanimously passed a bill to expand government and spent money? Not a single vote against in any committee or anywhere along the line?

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. 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. Taxpayers will fund the program under a bill that passed the General Assembly and is awaiting the signature of Gov. John Hickenlooper. Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino is at right. Photo By Karl Gehring/The Denver Post

 Generally, expanding the bureaucracy isn’t a popular activity among Colorado voters.

But lawmakers passed the bill, expected to be signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, because they are convinced Safe2Tell, founded by Colorado Springs resident Susan Payne, should no longer exist at the whim of grants and donations and be at risk of closing during the next recession.

And they are convinced Safe2Tell is saving lives of schoolchildren bent on suicide or harming their classmates and teachers in an attack. It’s hard to disagree when you consider the numbers.

(Click here to read my Jan. 17, 2014, column on Safe2Tell.)

In the agency’s first school year, 2004-05,it handled 102 reports as it tried to establish its identity with schools statewide.

Ten years later, after countless visits to schools and classrooms and other forms of outreach, Safe2Tell is well known and has fielded 2,800 reports during the 2013-14 school year, said Natasha Sansoni, 39, who has worked side-by-side with her 50-year-old sister, Susan, for years at the agency.

Of those 2,800 reports, 534 reports were of school children threatening suicide.

Another 503 were reports of bullying in schools.

Third on the list were 286 reports of drug abuse.

And then there are the reports of planned school attacks. Safe2Tell’s website, toll-free phone and text hotlines have fielded 49 attack threats this school year.

Sisters Susan Payne, left, and Natasha Sansoni in a 2009 photo.

Sisters Susan Payne, left, and Natasha Sansoni in a 2009 photo.

I talked to the sisters, Susan and Natasha, about their work all these past years as the only fulltime employees at Safe2Tell. As many in our community, scratching together enough grant money and donations to keep a nonprofit afloat can be a fulltime job.

Then comes the real work of dealing with something as urgent as fielding tips, assessing the threats, coordinating with schools, law enforcement agencies, counselors or whoever might be needed, depending on the circumstances.

“Every morning I get up and go through every report,” she said. “I see so many hurting kids out there.”

Her voice trailed off at the thought.

With 2,800 reports and nearly three months left in the SCHOOL year, Susan and Natasha have handled about 10 a day, seven days a week because the reports come in around the clock.

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.

Natasha said 99 percent of all reports come from concerned bystanders, not victims reporting they’ve been bullied or going to kill themselves or cut themselves or lash out at someone else. It’s kids concerned about their friends and classmates.

Over the years, the sisters and their staff have prevented more than 1,600 suicides, based on outcome reports filed by schools. I’d call that one heck of an achievement.

Another huge success is in the category of planned school attacks. Since 2004, Safe2Tell has received 316 reports of suspected plans to attack schools. Based on investigations by authorities, Safe2Tell prevented 39 attacks. Those are reports that were deemed credible and resulted in arrests and weapons taken from homes.

Still, I imagined the toll it must take on the sisters’ psyches to have to wade through such troubling reports every morning.

The daily reports have sometimes included photos taken from a student’s Facebook page with threatening language or worse.

“We’ve had ‘goodbye’ letters downloaded to our website,” Natasha said. “We’ve had Facebook posts saying: ‘Goodbye to the world. I can’t handle this anymore.’

“We’ve even gotten pictures of students with guns to their heads. We see that kind of thing every day. I’m a mom and it breaks your heart sometimes.”

Rip HaywireI prefer to start my day reading Rip Haywire and Dilbert. Who needs that kind of pre

ssure each morning?

“Susan and I talk a lot about the emotional stress,” Natasha said. “There’s a lot. At the end of the day, I say a prayer for the kids we’ve seen come through the program.”

Of course, it’s not all depressing. There’s the satisfaction of knowing suicides are being prevented and kids are getting counseling. Or they are being protected from bullies. Or entire schools are safe from attacks thanks to Safe2Tell.

“So many good things have happened,” Natasha said. “That’s the thing that helps me get through it.”

Clearly, Susan and Natasha have a passion for their cause. That’s why they worked so hard to keep it going and convince lawmakers to make it a state agency.

They are thrilled with the bill’s passage . . . with one disappointing exception.

To ensure Safe2Tell survived to keep protecting kids, the sisters knew they needed to convince lawmakers to adopt it and provide it funding.

But that security blanket came at a cost. The sisters will no longer be the Safe2Tell team.

2courage2-205x300 (1)As a state agency, it appears the Safe2Tell office will have to move to Denver with the rest of the Attorney General’s staff.

And Susan, at its founder and director, can’t just hire her sister again. There are nepotism rules and all that.

“We were shocked when we learned that,” Natasha said. “But I’ll just find something else to do.”

Susan is disappointed, as well.

“That’s the bitter part of this whole thing,” Susan said. “I feel really bad about it.”
But that’s how important Safe2Tell is.

Important enough to bring lawmakers together.

And to tear sisters apart from the thing they created.

HOTLINE

Safe2Tell has a toll-free, 24-hour hotline where students and adults can make anonymous reports about a crime or potentially dangerous situation or fears for a person’s safety. To submit an anonymous tip, contact Safe2Tell on its website, www.Safe2Tell.org, or by phone at 877-543-SAFE (7233). For questions, call its office at 520-7435.