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False, bogus tips plague FL’s new school safety app, school leaders say

More than 6,000 tips statewide since suspicious reporting app went live
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Superintendent Kurt S. Browning, Pasco County
John Newman, Chief of Security and Emergency Management for the Hillsborough County school district
Michael Barber, spokesman for the Manatee County school district
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President Donald Trump tweet on Fortify FL app
Posted at 4:10 PM, Feb 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-06 09:43:00-05

TAMPA, Fla. -- If you want to know what Florida students are reporting through the state’s new school safety app, the state won’t tell you.

It’s all “exempt” information said a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which oversees the app.

But ask school districts leaders about the tips they’re receiving through the new mobile suspicious reporting tool, and it’s all a little more revealing.

“Come to the restroom so you can see my private parts,” a school safety specialist in Hillsborough County,” told us recently.

“They’ll talk about the flavor of the food in the cafeteria,” said Indian River County Superintendent Dr. David Moore.

“There’s a coyote in my front yard,” Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning told us.

The Florida Investigative Team

Known as Fortify Florida, the app is intended to let students anonymously alert schools and law enforcement to potential trouble before it happens. The tool was inspired by the school shooting in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High in Parkland, FL and received early praise.

“Any tool that helps people report suspicious activity is a positive thing.” Said Michael Barber, spokesman for the Manatee County school district.

Michael Barber, spokesman for the Manatee County school district
Michael Barber, spokesman for the Manatee County school district

After it’s launch in the fall of 2018, even the White House gave Florida a nod for fortify- ”BIG PRIORITY, Florida is getting it done,” tweeted President Trump.

President Donald Trump tweet on Fortify FL app
President Donald Trump tweet on Fortify FL app

But while the phone app has generated over 6,000 tips statewide since it went live. a year—and-a-half later some school districts are now calling out its failures.

“We get a lot of erroneous tips that take up a lot of time,” explained John Newman, Chief of Security and Emergency Management for the Hillsborough County school district. In Hillsborough County just under 200 tips have been received. Newman said about 10 were credible.

John Newman, Chief of Security and Emergency Management for the Hillsborough County school district
John Newman, Chief of Security and Emergency Management for the Hillsborough County school district

Back in October, a tip through the FortifyFL app alerted Indian River County authorities to a snapchat post claiming a student was going to shoot up a local middle school. Police spent all night investigating. searching the boys’ home to discover the original post came from a female classmate angry over their break up.

“We acted in the best interest of the children,” explained new Superintendent, Dr. Moore who wasn’t working in Indian River County at the time. Moore is a supporter of the app and served as the Assistant Superintendent of Student Services for the Miami-Dade County school district before recently being hired along the Treasure Coast.

In Pasco County, Superintendent Browning said some of the 150 tips they’ve received through the app have shut down schools so local law enforcement could thoroughly investigate.

“It’s just frustrating,” Browning said. “When you do that, I will assure you there was no education going on that day. No educating of students,” he said.

Superintendent Kurt S. Browning, Pasco County
Superintendent Kurt S. Browning, Pasco County

At the beginning of the 2019/2020 school year, Browning, who also leads the state’s superintendent’s association, sent a text to the state's education boss pleading for help.

"The number of kids entering bogus tips is consuming a great deal of resources. It’s is a total distraction for all of us, “he wrote. Browning followed up with a formal memo of concern to the state.

Drag your cursor over the dot to see how many tips your school district has received on Fortify FL

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School leaders point to weaknesses with the app itself. Tipsters can submit alerts anonymously, so authorities can't track them down. School leaders and safety specialists say the app could remain anonymous but still give authorities a way to communicate back and forth, reducing the invitation for false tips.

The company behind it, AppArmor, describes itself online as "innovators of public safety,” The company is based out of Canada and, according to state records, offered Florida the "best value."

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Florida contracted with AppArmor for a three year, $254,000 contract to build, operate and manage the mobile app, state records show.

Q & A from Florida’s Dept. of Law Enforcement on services for Fortifyfl app.

Shortly after the state announced it selected AppArmor to build the app, state records show one competitor protested. questioning Apparmor's “material inexperience." That company, StopIt Solutions, later withdrew its protest.

AppArmor isn’t commenting about FortifyFL or concerns we heard from Florida schools about the usefulness and efficiency of the app.

“We cannot discuss a product built for a customer,” David Sinkinson, Apparmor's CEO and co-founder told us in an email.

“I’m just concerned that we’re squandering essentially our tax dollars,” said Kisa Shapiro, a gun violence prevention activist with Brady United Against Violence. Shapiro works with schools and teens in Hillsborough county. She's heard enough concerns about the app she has yet to endorse it and encourage students to use it.

”I don’t feel we’ve received enough information or positive feedback in order to say that this is working really well,” she said.

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While the state isn’t commenting, lawmakers are. A bill is now moving through Tallahassee that would let authorities tracks IP address of tips and criminally prosecute those who knowingly submit false tips to the app.

It’s a tool everyone knew would generate its share of false alerts, but not at such a cost.

“It’s just frustrating being the Superintendent and having the responsibility to educate all our kids only to find out that it just takes a tip, referencing a school and everything stops at that school,” said Superintendent Browning.

More from the Florida Investigative Team