School Climate & Safety

More Schools Are Using Anonymous Tip Lines to Thwart Violence. Do They Work?

By Evie Blad — August 10, 2018 9 min read
Anonymous school violence reporting systems include mobile apps, which allow students to share concerns about issues like bullying, drug use, suicide, and planned school attacks.

After students in one Oklahoma high school finish a lockdown drill, they immediately hear a plea from administrators over the intercom: Report your safety concerns.

Students can reduce the already slim chances of an attack on their school if they anonymously share tips about violence, threats, and bullying through a smart phone app or a quick phone call.

That message, blanketed across their school on posters, stickers, and classroom signs, seeks to create a culture where students feel comfortable sharing their fears and seeking help from adults, said Tim Makris, the executive director of Sandy Hook Promise, a gun-violence-prevention organization.

“When an incident does happen, they can look on the wall, look on the floor, look on the mirror in the bathroom, and there’s something there that can remind them to say something,” Makris said, describing the Oklahoma school and others that have partnered with the organization since it launched its Say Something anonymous reporting system in March.

There’s been a surge of interest in anonymous school violence reporting systems since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. After that tragedy, families of slain students have lamented the missed warning signs of the shooter’s violent intentions, including comments to coworkers and troubling posts on social media. And anger spread through the community at the revelation that the FBI and local law enforcement had received previous tips about the gunman, who is now on trial for killing 17 people.

Students are often the best source of information about such threats.

“Any time there’s a tragic situation like what happened at Sandy Hook or Parkland, I think we all examine what we are doing and try to get better,” said Matthew Miller, superintendent of the Lakota, Ohio, district, which recently partnered with a state-run tip line.

That tip line replaced an outdated phone system that directed calls straight to 911 and got few reports because it intimidated students, he said. It’s part of a broader set of safety upgrades the district made this spring, including additional school resource officers and a new system for tracking visitors.

The STOP School Violence Act, signed into law in March by President Donald Trump as part of a larger spending bill, includes grant funding to help state and local governments create anonymous reporting apps and tip lines.

Florida authorized the creation of a mobile reporting app—named FortifyFL by Stoneman Douglas students—as part of a broad school safety law passed less than a month after the attack. Pennsylvania and Nevada approved funding for anonymous reporting systems, and at least three other legislatures—in Kentucky, New Jersey, and North Carolina—considered bills related to reporting systems in their 2018 sessions, but did not pass them. New systems will join others created by states like Michigan, Utah, and Ohio in the wake of the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Most School Shooters Tell Someone of Their Plans

Many of tip lines are modeled after Colorado’s Safe2Tell reporting system, created in 2004 and credited with thwarting planned attacks. Susan Payne, the founder and director of Safe2Tell, said she recently shared strategies with 21 states interested in launching or improving anonymous reporting systems.

“We know, not only from a homeland security perspective, but from a community and school perspective, that young people know long before adults what is happening,” Payne said.

See Also: School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where

In response to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center analyzed 37 targeted school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000. It concluded that attackers in 31 of those events had told at least one person about their plans beforehand.

In 22 cases, two or more people knew about the planned attack in advance, the agency found. In most cases, those peers were classmates, siblings, and friends of the attackers. Those findings are still frequently cited by youth-violence-prevention experts.

“Students, teachers, staff, school resource officers, and parents should be provided training and guidance on recognizing behaviors of concern, their roles and responsibilities in reporting the behavior, and how to report the information,” the Threat Assessment Center said in a July report about threat assessment, a process schools use to identify students who may pose a threat to themselves or others.

School attackers don’t fit a specific profile, the report says, adding that shooters have been both socially isolated and popular, and have had a variety of levels of academic success. Schools should ensure students have a method for anonymously reporting concerns they may be reluctant to share with adults, the report says.

That’s a lesson Colorado learned from experience. The state quickly launched a telephone tip line after the Columbine shooting, but it received very few tips until, acting on feedback from students, it created Safe2Tell in 2004, allowing callers and app users to remain anonymous.

Concerns About School Violence

Safe2Tell received 16,000 reports through its website, mobile phone app, and telephone number in the 2017-18 school year, and operators, who are part of the Colorado State Patrol, saw a spike after the school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas.

Operators triage those tips, forwarding them to local law enforcement agencies and schools as they respond. Students can submit screen captures from social media posts and other supporting information to explain their concerns.

In Douglas County, Colo., school employees field Safe2Tell reports out of the district’s call center, where they also monitor security cameras and dispatch school police. In emergency situations, the district shares information with law enforcement, like confirmations that a student is enrolled in their school.

“When these tips come in, sometimes they come in as a concern about a student, like, ‘I’m concerned about a friend because they are depressed,’” said Belinda Monaghan, the district’s dispatch manager. “And then sometimes it will evolve into something different, and we will find out about a hit list or a planned attack.”

The Safe2Tell system is credited with thwarting many credible attack plans, once even partnering with Royal Canadian Mounted Police who arrested a Canadian teenager after operators fielded a rare report from an out-of-country tipster, a student who heard the suspect discussing plans to carry out a shooting while riding the bus.

In April, deputies in Summit County, Colo., arrested a 15-year-old boy, acting on a tip that he’d passed out sticky notes to classmates he planned to spare when he carried out a school shooting.

Tips on Possible Suicide and Bullying Are Common

Though most reporting systems are created out of concern about school shootings, operators say they are far more likely to receive tips about suicide, drugs, and bullying than school violence.

In 2017-18, Safe2Tell fielded 2,786 tips about suicide, 1,831 tips about possible drug use, and 1,641 tips about bullying—compared to 692 tips about possible school attacks.

Sandy Hook Promise’s Say Something, which is operated from a private, 24-hour call center in Miami, has seen similar trends since its launch, Makris said, noting that concerns about suicide generate the most reports. Operators are trained to respond to and identify mental health issues, and urgent reports may be forwarded to relevant psychiatric hotlines for counseling or to police for a welfare check.

Tips about drug and alcohol use may be referred to law enforcement, while reports of bullying will go straight to school administrators, who can assess them for validity and plan a response.

The organization expects around 300 school districts to be using its tip line by next spring, Makris said.

The program includes training for students about identifying signs of violence and addressing social isolation among their peers. Sandy Hook Promise installs a full-time staff person in districts with more than 150,000 students to help coordinate programs. For smaller districts, it uses a coordinator who works across multiple school systems.

Say Something is offered free to all schools using funding provided by donors and corporate groups, but Sandy Hook Promise has also worked with some schools to secure grant funding to cover operational expenses through the STOP School Violence Act, which the organization helped push through Congress.

Say Something materials address the reasons students might not share concerns with adults, like “if this person said it out loud then they don’t mean it,” or “they’re going to see me as a snitch,” by providing examples of tips and ways schools have intervened. That helps students overcome their fears about reporting, Makris said.

“We try to make it very real so that it’s relatable and believable and we can meet them where they’re at,” he said.

Partnering With Law Enforcement

As momentum builds behind violence-prevention efforts, some civil rights and student-data-privacy groups are raising concerns.

In Florida, for example, data-privacy groups are cautioning against plans to create a law enforcement database that includes information from students’ social media accounts.

As Congress considered the STOP School Violence Act, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund urged leaders of both parties to include language that requires reporting systems to protect students’ due process rights.

Without such requirements, reporting systems “will be an easy vehicle for students or staff who hold implicit or explicit biases against students of color to report those students as being a danger to themselves or others based on discriminatory reasons,” the organization said in a letter to leaders of both political parties.

After some Colorado students used Safe2Tell to harass peers by calling in false reports, lawmakers passed a bill that requires the system to annually report how often it is used for abusive purposes.

“It’s just so easy to abuse the system,” Arvada student Lucy Geisleman, 15, told CBS 4 Denver in May.

Pranksters called in three false drug and suicide reports about her, Geisleman said, and police twice pulled her out of class to discuss the tips.

Monaghan said Douglas County has fielded some false tips, including one from a student who submitted a report about herself, apparently seeking attention.

But the program has also helped intervene in many concerning situations, she said, adding that “the good outweighs the bad.”

Best Practices ‘Should Not Be a Secret’

As states, districts, and even private companies take an interest in tip lines and reporting systems, Payne, in Colorado, stresses they won’t be as effective as Safe2Tell if they don’t share some of its practices.

Safe2Tell is operated by law enforcement, which eliminates many legal and logistical barriers to accessing students’ educational information in crisis situations, she said. Systems run by private companies and nonprofit organizations may not be able to respond as quickly, she said. Operators partner with the state’s fusion center, a state entity recognized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice where local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies can quickly share information and respond to threats.

Payne also cautions against systems that don’t have personnel and processes in place to respond to tips around the clock.

Safe2Tell sees a spike in tips on Friday evenings, often about suicide threats.

“It does no good if the school doesn’t pick up that report until Monday morning, only to contact the parents and find their child committed suicide Sunday night,” she said.

States should look to proven models, rather than starting from scratch, Payne said.

“I invite anyone to come see it,” she said. “This should not be a secret.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2018 edition of Education Week as Schools Turning to Anonymous Tip Lines to Thwart Violence

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