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Tip Lines Can Lower Violence Exposure in Schools

Anonymous reporting systems only work if the whole school community learns when and how to use them.
Date Published
June 18, 2024

The most visible school security measures — police officers, cameras, metal detectors — have dominated research and public debate on school safety for decades. School administrators looking for the best ways to protect students and reassure families now have evidence for another, less visible tool: anonymous reporting systems.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funded a randomized controlled trial in Miami, which found that students at schools with an anonymous reporting system experienced 13.5% fewer violent incidents than students at schools without it.[1]

Why might anonymous reporting systems help prevent school violence? In most planned school attacks, at least one person close to the attacker knows about the plan ahead of time.[2] But a “code of silence” often keeps students from reporting on a classmate.[3] Tip lines and other systems that allow students to share their safety concerns anonymously — by phone, online, or in a mobile app — offer a way to overcome that barrier.

Some stakeholders have voiced concern over potential unintended consequence of tip lines. Specifically, anonymous tip lines could be misused, for example, to make prank calls or to wrongly implicate a student as a form of bullying. Misuse could waste the time of the team administering the anonymous reporting system or harm the reputation of a falsely accused student. While this concern should be more fully explored in future research, a few studies have found that false reporting was rare, or that it decreased after students saw the tips were followed up and handled appropriately.[4]

Read more about the history and theory behind tip lines for school safety.

By 2019, around half of public middle and high schools had tip lines, though most of those lines had been operating for three years or less.[5] Researchers are just starting to understand how students, schools, and communities use these reporting systems and what kind of impact they have.

Students Report Less Violence at School

The NIJ-funded study looked at an anonymous reporting system called Say Something, which includes 24/7 support for tips in addition to schoolwide training on recognizing and reporting warning signs of violence.[6]

This research on Say Something is the first randomized controlled trial of an anonymous reporting system in schools, noted Jen Grotpeter, the social scientist who oversees school safety research at NIJ.

Led by Hsing-Fang Hsieh and Justin Heinze at the University of Michigan, the study asked students in 29 Miami-Dade County public schools (13 with the Say Something system and 16 without it) how many times they had encountered violence at school — such as bullying, gang activity, and weapons — in the past three months. In schools with access to Say Something, students reported approximately one fewer encounter with violence nine months after the system launched at their school than they had reported at the time of the launch. Students at schools without Say Something reported no such decrease in violence over time.[7]

Hsieh and Heinze’s team also asked students to rate how confident they were in their ability to recognize and report threats through multiple channels, including the Say Something app. In addition, they surveyed students’ perceptions of safety, trust in their classmates, and feelings of connectedness at school. Say Something appeared to prevent these measures of self-efficacy and school climate from declining over the course of the school year, as they did in the schools without it.[8]

Grotpeter cautioned that this type of survey data does not measure whether schools recorded fewer violent incidents after adopting the anonymous reporting system or whether students used the system to report threats as they said they would. But, she said, “it’s an important first step.”

Describing how these results can begin to answer broader questions about the efficacy of anonymous report systems. Hsieh said, “If the school climate improves, we expect to see the violence drop.”

School Administrators Must Support Ongoing Training

“[Training] is the key element that we think will make anonymous reporting systems have an effect,” said Hsieh.

When implementing anonymous reporting in schools, it is not true that “if you build it, they will come,” Heinze added. He explained that the Say Something program has multiple facets — the reporting system, schoolwide training events, and student activities focused on safety — that work together to increase students’ ability to recognize and report events. In this model, educating both students and staff about how to recognize signs of violence and when to report them is a necessary first step, which in turn leads to a growing awareness throughout the school community and ultimately more people using the system.

To measure this effect in the Miami-Dade County schools, Hsieh and Heinze compared each school’s student survey results to the number of students who attended that school’s kick-off assembly for Say Something where the students first learned about the system. They found that more positive student surveys tracked closely with higher attendance at the Say Something training assemblies. Within schools that trained most of their students, “The students who got trained had better outcomes than students at the same schools who didn’t get trained,” said Hsieh.

Adoption of the reporting system appeared to depend on reaching the most students possible at that initial, schoolwide training event.[9] Training on the anonymous reporting system also needs to become a regular part of the school calendar to have a “long-term, school-level effect,” Hsieh noted.

For schools trying to understand the costs and benefits of reporting tools, the importance of training as many students as possible has budget implications. Schools may focus on the up-front costs of buying an anonymous reporting system, said Heinze. But implementing the system “is not just a one-time cost. Sustainability costs need to be incorporated.”

Hsieh and Heinze cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that a single violent incident at school may cost society $2,200 to $15,100.[10] They calculated that the annual cost of the Say Something program was less than $3,000 for each school in their study. They concluded that an anonymous reporting system “may be [a] highly cost-effective method for school violence prevention.”[11]

About This Article

The work described in this article was supported by NIJ award number 2017-CK-BX-0002, awarded to the University of Michigan.

This article is based on the grantee report “Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System” (pdf, 40 pages), by Hsing-Fang Hsieh and Justin Heinze.

Date Published: June 18, 2024