Thursday, June 09, 2005

Breaking the student code of silence – the facts about tip-lines

I like the movie “Scent of a Woman”. I am a big Al Pacino fan. But I have always struggled to understand the underlying purpose of the message depicted during the movie’s expulsion hearing scene. This is the scene in which Col. Frank Slade chooses the only strategy he could think of to get Charlie Simms off the hook. That strategy was to make old Charlie appear somehow righteous for refusing to “snitch” on fellow classmates for acts of vandalism. Ironically, Slade, a military college graduate, was educated under a code of student conduct where revealing dishonesty among fellow students was considered to be the epitome of ethical behavior. I find it just a little heartening to know that most all critical commentaries that refer to the movie as “great but flawed.” cite this message as part of the reason.

Now that the identity of Deep Throat is known, we can expect to see a national media debate on the ethics, loyalty, and the propriety of whistle blowing. Sides are forming now and I am certain that ultimately the truth will be lost in the brouhaha – that is, that there should be no debate. Every citizen has an ethical obligation to report acts of wrongdoing that have the potential to impact the physical safety of others or the overall wellbeing of society. Ok, call me an idealist. But, while this national debate may play out to be a philosophical one, students are more practical in their views on the issue. With students the issue is one of fear rather than ethics or peer loyalty. Is there really a student code of silence when it comes right down to it? If there is, I believe it is one that can be broken.

Our basis for this assessment is not speculation. Our assessment is based upon the School Safety & Drug Assessment Survey taken by tens of thousands of students throughout Texas over the last three years. The survey is a joint project of the Texas School Safety Center and ChooseToCare. Without a way to report things anonymously, 57% of students surveyed say they would likely not report something they knew could potentially harm them or someone they knew. This figure is both astounding and disturbing. Add an anonymous tip-line and now over 63% of students say they would not hesitate to report crimes or other harmful behaviors. The issue – fear! Students are afraid of physical retaliation; being ostracized by their peers; or, being labeled a snitch. Thankfully, only a small percentage of students (5.5%) seem to believe that doing what most reasonable people believe is the “right thing” somehow violates a student “code of silence”. Given a safe and secure way to report issues without saying who they are, the majority of students say they would come forward. Apathy among students (14%) characterizes the feelings of the majority of students who say they would not report a student safety issue. They simply don’t want to get involved or they feel no action would be taken based upon their report.

Based upon the post incident investigation we can speculate that what happened at Columbine may have been prevented had a well promoted student tip-line been in place. Today, No Child Left Behind encourages schools to adopt an anonymous student reporting procedure. Still, many school districts are reluctant to implement such programs. The reasons come down to an overwhelming lack of understanding about the costs, benefits, and liabilities of having such a program. By way of example, we recently encountered a school board attorney who, in a recorded public meeting, stated that he has advised the Superintendent to destroy (“trash”) any anonymous letter or other anonymous correspondence received by the school district. The attorney stated, “If the person doesn’t have the nerve to say who they are, why should anyone believe them”. This attorney unwittingly placed the school district in a position of extreme liability – publicly! Clearly, this attorney has missed what school security and law enforcement experts across the country have discovered. That is, that anonymous is big with students and that students have used tip-lines to save their own or the lives of other students. Moreover, that tip-lines have become a “best practice” in the fast changing realm of school security.

Tip-lines too have evolved over the years. They have gone from the basic operator answered toll-free phone service to sophistated Web-based programs. Before we began the ChooseToCare program, now the most widely used student based tip-line in Texas, we conducted focus groups with students to find out what type of tip line process kids would most likely use. Students told us they would prefer a Web-based process that ensured their privacy and provided more anonymity than phone based services (your phone number appears on the service’s phone bill). What did students find most attractive about the Web-based process? Ironically, it was the impersonal nature of the Web that attracted them. That they didn’t necessarily have to speak to a live operator was the single most attractive aspect of the Web process. This was especially true with female students who said they would be reluctant to speak to a stranger about matters of a “sensitive”, perhaps sexual nature.

ChooseToCare offers students, parents and the community with options for making their report. A toll-free number is available, but seldom used. About 95% of all information destined for participating school districts comes in through the Web. Regardless of how the report is submitted, ChooseToCare users may identify themselves or remain truly anonymous. When a user decides to let ChooseToCare know their identity but not the school district, CTC acts as an intermediary between the district and the informant. ChooseToCare does not replace a school district’s existing and traditional ways of communicating with students and parents, but rather supplements them as part of layering-on process.

One thing is certain, for better or worse, the Internet has become a preferred way to communicate for many people. If you are considering a school safety tip-line for your community, choose on that provides the most options for potential users. Be certain that the process is secure server based and SSL protected. Avoid systems that send your sensitive information by email – it is just not secure. Last, be sure your tip line process is school specific and deals with issues like bullying, gender orientation discrimination, sexual harassment, and other behavioral issues that confront students every day. These are behaviors that students won’t report to some of the “crime based” tip-lines that some schools use today. To inquire about how your school district can become a ChooseToCare participant please call us at 940-891-1919.

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