University of Utah overspends — to the tune of $236K — in developing SafeUT app

(Tribune file photo) The SafeUT app is a statewide service that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth through texting and a confidential tip program.

The University of Utah spent nearly a quarter-million dollars more than the Legislature had appropriated for the research institution to support and expand SafeUT, an app in which students can anonymously chat with crisis counselors.

Lawmakers earmarked $550,000 to last through fiscal year 2018, which ended in June, so the school could hire four licensed clinicians, a supervisor and two outreach development specialists to work on a text and tip line. The university still did not have enough staff to cover the thousands of messages flooding the popular app each day, so it hired more social workers.

It spent $785,900.

“The response to the app has been huge,” said U. spokeswoman Kathy Wilets. “When it got so highly used, we were really stretched thin with crisis workers.”

The Legislature’s Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee heard a report on the spending Tuesday and will weigh whether to cover the extra costs. If it doesn’t, the school will absorb the additional $235,900.

The university, Wilets said, is working on a plan to create a more sustainable funding setup.

“This is clearly a need in our community that isn’t going away anytime soon,” she said.

The SafeUT app was launched in January 2016, and use has grown steadily. Students can report suicidal thoughts, bullying or threats of school violence; University Neuropsychiatric Institute staffers are available 24/7.

It’s been particularly important in Utah, where suicide is the leading cause of death among youths ages 10 and 17, according to the state’s Health Department.

In the 2017-18 school year, there were 15,000 chats and 7,400 tips reported on the SafeUT app — 365 that dealt with threats, Wilets said. K-12 school districts across the state use the program for free.

To recoup some expenses, the U. charges public universities to set up the program on their campuses. That brings in about $500,000 a year.

In a statement to the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, the U. said: “It is hard to put a price on the value of preventing youth suicide and planned school attacks. The social, emotional and financial losses which ensue from youth suicide or active shooter scenarios is such that if we are able to prevent one of these devastating events from occurring by funding SafeUT, these dollars are well spent.”