An expansive analysis of thousands of reports to a school violence tipline provides evidence that the technology may be effective at thwarting violence.
Researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention analyzed every tip North Carolina students submitted to a violence-prevention tipline between 2019 and 2023, using a language-learning model to detect mentions of firearms.
Of the 18,024 tips the researchers reviewed, 9.8 percent used at least one firearms-related term. Of those gun-related tips, 38.2 percent were reports of potential plans for school attacks, they wrote in a study published Jan. 17 in the journal Pediatrics.
About half of the firearms-related tips were deemed potentially life-threatening, meaning they called for a response from police or emergency medical personnel. That was five times greater than the proportion of non-firearms tips that were deemed life-threatening.
The findings demonstrate that anonymous reporting systems can be an effective tool in violence prevention, said Elyse Thulin, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author.
“We now have more empirical evidence that youth are, one, using the tiplines; and two, that they’re using them for potentially pretty urgent problems,” Thulin said.
Anonymous reporting systems, commonly known as tiplines, allow students to report concerns that peers will harm themselves or others, allowing school administrators and, in some cases, law enforcement to intervene. They include a variety of systems, including those run by states, non-profit organizations, or private vendors.
About half of schools use anonymous reporting systems, which are mandated in 21 states. Colorado became the first state to launch its own anonymous reporting system following the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, and their use increased significantly following the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The North Carolina tips used in the University of Michigan analysis were collected by operators of the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, who field reports of potential violence and harm through telephone, text, and web platforms, referring the most urgent and credible concerns to police and school administrators.
North Carolina is one of 23 states that participate in the program, which is operated by Sandy Hook Promise, a violence-prevention organization founded after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Participating states train middle and high school students to make reports.
Identifying potential school attacks
Researchers classified tips as potential school attacks if they involved information that was not already known to schools and law enforcement, there was a written or verbal threat to attack a school, and the reporter indicated the subject had access to a weapon. The study does not indicate how many of those tips were later deemed credible or how schools and law enforcement responded to them.
The reporting systems are grounded in findings that most mass shooters “leak” their violent intentions before they attack through troubling behaviors or communications. In a 2019 analysis of 41 targeted school attacks, the U.S. Secret Service found that suspects in 31 instances had signaled their violent intent through in-person communications to a friend, family member, or acquaintance, and others communicated about possible violence through messages, postings, and/or school assignments.
Schools need resources to respond to concerns about violence
Reporting systems alone aren’t enough to address youth violence, Thulin said. Schools and communities must also have resources like mental health counselors to effectively intervene.
Generally, states have launched tiplines in response to mass school shootings. But reports documented in the study largely related to more common concerns about violence and mental health distress. Of the firearms-related tips, 3.2 percent related to suicide, and 22.3 percent related to general concerns about weapons possession, the study said.
“Firearms are now a leading cause of death [among children and adolescents], and school shootings are actually a very, very small percentage of those deaths,” Thulin said. “That’s not to say that those deaths aren’t important; all the deaths are incredibly important. But we know that firearms are related to a number of problematic and risky situations.”
Researchers also analyzed reports that didn’t mention firearms, which made up the vast majority of the tips. Among the categories researchers identified, 20 percent of the reports were related to bullying, and 9 percent related to suicide.
The Michigan researchers hope their new findings, and future analyses generated from the North Carolina data, help provide new insights about how reporting systems work and what factors make them effective, Thulin said. For example, researchers could disaggregate the data to determine if students in rural, less-populated areas are less likely to report their concerns out of fear of being identified by classmates.
Also, Thulin noted, the Say Something reporting system may be more effective than some less-sophisticated models because it relies on human operators to vet reports, and refers only the most credible and concerning ones to local officials, Thulin said. That may help prevent some of the “response fatigue” school administrators get if they rely on computerized systems that automatically send them a message for every student tip, she said.
Future research should focus on what happens after tips are received and what resources communities need to respond, Thulin said.
“What we don’t know is, when we’ve told parents and we’ve told schools [about reports of possible violence or mental health crises], do they feel prepared to handle these challenges?”