Having a school climate where students feel comfortable going to a trusted adult is the key to a successful threat reporting system, concludes a RAND Corporation study.
Without those strong youth-adult relationships, it’s less likely that threats or school safety-related concerns are going to be reported in time to prevent problems, the report found.
The RAND study, published Aug. 25, outlines how states, districts, and schools can best encourage students to report threats of school violence so that action can be taken before something happens.
The study was released three months after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and as K-12 districts scramble to increase school security and prevent another tragedy. Many schools are spending more on physical security, such as metal detectors, security cameras, and door-locking systems.
But the report suggests that focusing on the school climate is also critical in ensuring school safety.
“In the wake of all of these horrific school shootings, a lot of conversations focused on a different array of issues,” said Pauline Moore, one of the authors of the study and a political scientist at RAND. “There’s the issue about gun safety, gun rights. There’s going to be discussions about improved physical security in schools. There’s going to be debates over whether we need armed teachers or not in schools.”
But Moore emphasizes that “this report really shows that the human dimension is really important in all of this.”
Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, told Education Week that the findings of the RAND study are “very much in line with what schools around the country are working at and attempting to do.” Administrators and teachers are working on connecting with students beyond academic priorities to develop trusting relationships, he said.
“Most people think that all educators care about is student achievement and test scores,” Domenech said. “But schools are also about the safety of the students and the mental well-being of the students.”
The study also found that students are more likely to report safety concerns if schools use communication methods that are more common among school-age kids, whether it’s through phone apps, websites, email, or text messaging.
Having an anonymous option is also important so that students don’t have to worry about bullying from their peers because they reported a threat.
Students need to know who will be fielding their reports of potential violence
It’s also important that schools are transparent about what happens to the information reported through a tip line or other methods. Those who are reporting concerns need to know who will be fielding their calls and tips, who has access to the information, which issues are handled by school administrators and which are handled by law enforcement.
Other findings from the study include:
- Reporting programs with the option to speak or chat directly with someone trained in crisis communication can lower barriers to reporting for those not comfortable speaking directly with law enforcement.
- Building awareness and implementing training on the importance of reporting and how students can report information are critical to supporting people seeking to come forward.
- Having buy-in from school leadership, teachers, and other school staff (including cafeteria staff, after-school staff, and bus drivers) increases the chances that a reporting program will be effective and sustainable.
“I think people understand what needs to be done to get students to come forward. It’s just a matter of finding the time and resources to implement the right approach,” Moore said.
Domenech agreed. He said school safety is top of mind for educators but it’s sometimes been “challenging” to implement. For example, districts are trying to hire more social workers, guidance counselors, and security personnel, but they’re having a hard time filling those positions. Some districts are also struggling with getting social media companies to provide districts with information when students might be threatening to harm themselves or others.
Domenech added that while it’s been great to have the American Rescue Plan funding, the requirement that the federal COVID-19 recovery money be spent within a three-year period is “a problem.”
“What’s going to happen when those dollars aren’t available anymore? And how can you maintain the type of practices that you’ve put in place to deal with student safety?” Domenech asked.
The study was based on a literature review of research about encouraging young people’s willingness to report concerns. Moore and the other researchers also conducted about 35 interviews with people working in K-12 education, including state leaders, district leaders, and principals, to get feedback on what approaches have worked for them to get students to come forward with information.
The research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and is part of an effort to provide tools for K-12 schools to improve school safety.