Youth tip lines, which were widely used after the 1999 shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School, are getting renewed interest from a handful of states and districts that are seeking to strengthen violence-prevention efforts following the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Supporters say tip lines provide a safe, confidential way for students to alert authorities about information that may be useful in preventing school attacks, bullying, and suicidal behaviors. But youth tip lines are effective only when they are part of a comprehensive prevention program that includes school training and cooperation from law enforcement, said Susan R.T. Payne, the founder of Colorado’s Safe2Tell tip line, considered one of the most effective in the country.
“It’s really easy to check the box and say, ‘We have a tip line,’ ” she said. “But the tip line is just the equipment part of the prevention initiative.”
Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would provide public funding for Safe2Tell, which is currently operated as a private nonprofit organization. Meanwhile, other states, including Michigan, have recently announced plans to replicate or consider replicating all or part of the Safe2Tell program.
Since its creation in 2004, the Safe2Tell line has received reports and aided in the prevention of 266 separate school attacks, according to an annual report. In December 2012 alone, it received 24 tips of planned attacks.
Over the same period, the Colorado tip line also has collected 1,436 reports of planned suicides and 2,386 reports of bullying, the annual report says.
Tapping Into Peers
A 2002 report by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, prepared after the agency analyzed 37 school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000, 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 study concluded. In nearly all cases, those peers were classmates, siblings, and friends of the attackers, it said.
“A friend or schoolmate may be the first person to hear that a student is thinking about or planning to harm someone,” the Secret Service report said. “Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, those who have information about a potential incident of targeted school violence may not alert an adult on their own.”
Following the Columbine shootings and the release of the Secret Service report, many states launched or piloted tip lines, largely through their state police or through contracts with private companies.
And in the decade since, dozens of school districts around the country—including large systems like Houston and Minneapolis—have organized their own tip lines and Internet reporting systems.
News reports suggest those efforts experienced a resurgence following the Newtown shootings. State task forces formed to make recommendations on school safety have considered creating tip lines or revamping existing reporting systems.
Current state-level efforts include Kentucky’s pilot of an online reporting system for violence and bullying in seven districts, which was launched in November.
A Connecticut bill that would have created a tip line died in committee last year. And New Jersey, Utah, and Wyoming are among several states that have discussed creating new reporting systems or improving existing ones in the last year.
Barriers to Success
But many tip lines, especially those that don’t involve a conversation between a human operator and the student reporters and are not accompanied by a school training program, aren’t effective and receive few or no reports, Ms. Payne of Safe2Tell said.
The Secret Service recommended that schools encourage students to share such information “by identifying and breaking down barriers in the school environment” that might discourage reports.
Colorado’s Safe2Tell system yields hundreds of valid reports because it’s accompanied by extensive school programs in which teachers talk students through actual news reports of bullying, school violence, and suicide and discuss how a report from a peer could have prevented such incidents, Ms. Payne said.
Colorado rushed to launch a tip line after the Columbine High shootings, but it got only seven reports in three years, Ms. Payne said. Organizers created Safe2Tellafter students around the state told them they would be more likely to report information about their peers if they were guaranteed total anonymity and if they had assurance that such reports “wouldn’t be swept under the rug.”
Under the Safe2Tell system, reports are immediately sent to schools and law-enforcement agencies, which must report back on how they handled the information. Trained 911 operators who take the calls can’t see the phone numbers of the callers, text messages are filtered through a system in Canada that wipes out identifying information, and a website provides a box for anonymous submissions. The law creating Michigan’s version of Safe2Tell, called OK-2-Say, shows the state plans to closely replicate Colorado’s model, but it allows for prosecutors to subpoena the identity of false reporters.
The Michigan program will launch this year and end in 2017 unless state lawmakers reauthorize it. The bill’s few critics said its cost of $3.5 million over four years could be better spent on adding more police to schools.
Michigan’s OK-2-Say will replace a previous tip line run by the state police that received very few calls, organizers said.
Ms. Payne, in Colorado, said she sees the need for a nationwide reporting system, noting that her state has received out-of-state reports.Once, she said, a student submitted a screen capture of an online chat-room message in which another student said he planned a school shooting the next day. Colorado police used the sender’s Internet protocol address to trace the message to a home in Biloxi, Miss., which local authorities entered at 2:30 the next morning.
“The kid says, ‘I was never going to do it,’ ” Ms. Payne said. “But they found seven weapons in his house.”
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Tip Lines Get a Fresh Look in School Safety Initiatives