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AnComm offers a voice, protection for school children

Oxford — The front line in the war against schoolyard shootings, teen suicide and host of other dire issues American schools face is the students themselves. Education officials desperately need their input to combat the death and injury of young people.

Unfortunately, students are often reluctant to report such behavior as bullying or talk of suicide due to peer pressure, fear of retaliation and other reasons. Thus, the conduit of information flowing from student to educator clogs. What is needed is a system that allows students to report aberrant behavior while providing total anonymity and confidentiality.

This is exactly what AnComm Inc. offers. Its encrypted, Web-based messaging service opens two-way communication between children and school administrators. It gives a child a voice and breaks the “code of silence” through anonymous communication, and it is finding more and more customers among beleaguered schools.

Speaking up, quietly

Carter Myers, president of AnComm, said his company’s product goes after the “disconnected child.” Studies show that open, two-way student-educator communication is absolutely crucial in protecting school children. For Myers, making money is just one of his goals at AnComm.

“We’re a for-profit company, but we are very aware of the social benefit of our product,” said Myers, a native of Jackson. “When I go into schools and see the children’s faces, it takes me totally out of the corporate world. We realize how important our product is, and we believe in it.”

AnComm provides a dialogue aimed at eliminating race, religious, social and gender biases. It is designed to head off such behavior as bullying, drug abuse, suicide, pregnancy, sexual harassment and even eating disorders, among others.

The system works like this: The subscribing school is assigned a dedicated Web page designed for that specific institution. Names of the subscribing school’s students are entered into the AnComm application, and each is assigned an ID and password for login. Students can then send their message to a specific administrator, teacher, counselor, etc., as chosen by the school. The content of the e-mail never leaves the application, ensuring anonymity. This allows the school to make a specific and immediate response to the threat.

And it works. AnComm has received testimonials of its system’s effectiveness. In fact, in 2001 at James Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, where the product was beta tested, an impending suicide was reported and prevented within two weeks of its implementation. According to Myers, the system has prevented a total of seven documented suicide threats since its inception.

And the system can work on other problems, too. One success story is of a teacher who was abusing drugs during the school day. A student gave a tip, which led to an investigation and the teacher’s termination.

In addition to being a vehicle to report negative behavior, the system also provides a way for school officials to track the issues on the minds of their students in a detailed way. For instance, schools can compare messages from, say, African-American females in the 12th grade to those from white males in the 10th grade. This allows the school to target its preventative measures.

New horizons

AnComm traces its roots back to 2001 and a Texas-based group called Safety Organization for Schools (SOS). SOS is a nonprofit organization that originally developed, tested and launched a system providing anonymous, two-way student-educator communication. However, a lack of resources limited the organization’s research and development and marketing efforts. A good system, it was having a hard time finding customers outside of Texas.

Enter Lewis Brandt. Brandt was told of the system and the challenges it faced due to a lack of funding. He immediately was struck by not only the potential profit from such a system if it was supported adequately, but also the greater good it could offer, “a logical need,” he said.

Though now a resident of Houston, Texas, Brandt grew up in Oxford and attended the University of Mississippi, as did Myers. The two men had already developed a relationship when Brandt was presented with SOS. Interested in financially backing the company but not in running it, Brandt put a call into Myers. Earlier this year, SOS was purchased, and AnComm was born.

The first task tackled was revamping the system’s software. While adequate, both Myers and Brandt saw that it needed tweaking to make it more user friendly. Looking to keep its business local, AnComm chose Jackson-based Rocket Science to give the software a facelift.

Myers gives much credit to Rocket Science, calling them “an outstanding partner.” And Brandt gives the lion’s share of the credit for the company’s early success to Myers.
“He’s the one who hired the right people. He’s the one who hired Rocket Science,” Brandt said. “As an investor, I’m very confident with where we are now. Because of schools’ funding problems, I know its going to take a while, maybe two or three years, to make a profit. But I’m confident we’ll get there.”

AnComm currently employs four workers, and its product is now in use in 15 school districts, mainly in Texas. The average size school is 1,500 students, with some closer to 2,500. Approximately 20,000-plus students now have AnComm available to them.

Both Myers and Brandt see those numbers swelling. AnComm is now marketing itself nationwide. Six states have instituted anti-bullying laws, most all of them requiring anonymity for reporting children. Thus, the company sees the potential for growth, and currently has proposals in front of officials in Massachusetts, Virginia and Connecticut.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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