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Implementing a School Tip Line? New Research Provides a Blueprint

Tip lines make possible confidential reporting of threats and problems and may benefit schools beset by safety and crime threats. More studies are needed on their effectiveness, but a new tip line toolkit instructs schools on how they work.
Date Published
June 29, 2020

Acts of violence, bullying, and other forms of disorder in schools instill fear in students and staff and interrupt education. They impose enormous direct and indirect costs. Deterrence and prevention are the best answers to disruption, and school tip lines may offer effective tools to deter and prevent that disruption.  

A research team from RTI International has crafted a toolkit to instruct school community stakeholders on how to implement school tip lines and on keys to their sustainable operation. The toolkit, developed with the support of the National Institute of Justice, offers a blueprint for educators, law enforcement professionals, community leaders, and school safety experts who are considering developing tip lines as a possible approach to preventing violence, self-harm, and other disorders. The team noted that more research is under way to better gauge the effect of tip lines on school safety and to develop tip line plans tailored to different school settings. As the researchers pointed out, “Tip lines are promising, but much is still unknown about their effectiveness.” 

Students often have the greatest knowledge of potential threats in a school community. Yet they are often reluctant to report to authorities problems such as illicit drug use or threats of violent acts, the research report presenting the toolkit said. Depending on their features, tip lines may offer low-cost, effective solutions as they act upon reports of problems received through multiple media, including telephones, web portals, and other electronic messaging.

Tip lines may help prevent violence and disorder by:

  • Breaking the code of silence by giving voice to students otherwise inclined to stay quiet.
  • Increasing the likelihood that threats and violations will be reported, by providing a confidential, often anonymous reporting tool.
  • Encouraging students to step up and speak out, in the process learning civic engagement skills that can be critical to educational development and school safety.
  • Empowering students and others to tap into support resources when threats of violence or disorder surface.

Tip lines and other possible solutions to crime and safety issues in school address a challenge nationwide in scope. In 2015, students ages 12 to 18 experienced 850,000 victimizations while at school.[1] Of that total, 500,000 were violent victimizations, and 70,000 were serious violent victimizations.[2] Nearly 21% of students were bullied at school in 2015, either in person or electronically.[3]

In the vast majority of school assaults, research has shown, another person — often a schoolmate or friend — had prior knowledge of the incident. Tip lines collect information that responding staff can then act upon by mobilizing resources in order to zero in on and address the problem.  

The team identified a number of attributes of a school tip line likely to support successful implementation, the toolkit report said, including:

  • Students must have ready access to the tip line.
  • Students must be able to trust that their tips will result in action.
  • Students must trust that information they share will be treated as confidential, if not anonymous.
  • Tip line marketing must constantly reinforce themes building trust.
  • Marketing must extend beyond the school to the larger community, underscoring shared responsibility and amplifying collective surveillance.
  • The tip line should be marketed through multiple forums.
  • A critical threshold decision is whether the tip line will be confidential or anonymous. Schools must consider the fact that anonymity will be forfeited in the case of (1) an active threat, such as threat of suicide, or (2) a malicious false report of a threat.
  • Deciding how reported information is triaged will be critical to effective operation, and schools should consider establishing Threat Assessment Teams. For more information about threat assessments, see Notes From the Field: The Value of Threat Assessment Teams.
  • Training focused on skills needed during the call is essential, including reflective listening, collaborative problem solving, and crisis management.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2017-CK-BX-0004, awarded to RTI International. The article is based on the report “School Tip Line Toolkit: A Blueprint for Implementation and Sustainability” (2019), M. Planty, D. Banks, S. Cutbush, and J. Sherwood.

Date Published: June 29, 2020