Tipping the Scales in Favor of Student Safety
“What would you do if you knew about something happening at school that could harm you or someone you know – I mean, who would you tell?”
“I’m not really sure what I would do, or who I would tell,” she said. “It’s risky, you know. They see you coming out of someone’s office, or the person you go to tells someone else, and then its all over. I don’t know. I don’t think I would take that chance. No one really wants to be known that way, if you know what I mean.”
“What if there was a way to tell what you know anonymously? Would that make a difference?” “Yeah, I think it would”, she said. “For me anyway.”
I was not “interviewing” her. Although, after a while I suppose she felt that way. She was a junior at a local high school and a hostess at my favorite restaurant. She just happened to be in view when I was talkative and had work on my mind.
How many other students feel this way is up for speculation. Having administered “tip-line” programs for corporations for over two decades, I am comfortable drawing on my private sector experience. The vast majority of people who use tip-lines to report serious workplace issues, do so anonymously. The general exceptions, of course, are the persons who report issues where they, themselves, are the victims. In many cases, the person who initially made the anonymous report will identify themselves once they have become more comfortable with the investigative process. When they do, I have made it my practice to ask them why they chose to be anonymous. Consistently, their answers point to two things. First, is the fear that others will know they have come forward. This, stemming from a lack of trust that the traditional reporting processes available to them will ultimately protect their confidentiality. And last, is the fear of embarrassment if the information they provide proves to be wrong.
The age distribution of corporate tip-line users varies from persons in their mid-teens to older adults. But I dare say that the sentiments and concerns most frequently expressed within the population of corporate users likely reside in an even more significant fashion among students today. The root of these sentiments being a struggle to trust, and the fear of being perceived negatively by their peers.
I have encountered more than a few educators who would minimize the potential impact these issues might have on students and their willingness to report critical and sensitive information. Some, I believe, perceive that the promotion of an anonymous method of reporting known or suspected student safety issues implies a failure to achieve a desired level of trust between students and educators. Others perhaps feel that the promotion of such a process may compromise the level of trust already in place.
Truly reaching students is a personal and professional goal for every educator. The recognition that not every student will trust the system enough to come forward with safety information, even when critical to saving lives, is both difficult to accept and disheartening. In some cases I have encountered a sentiment of abject rejection by certain school administrators for any information provided anonymously. When this sentiment manifests itself in practice, it is dangerous and places the safety of students and others at risk.
The truth is that anonymous tip-lines need not conflict with a school’s existing and more traditional student resources. They are incremental and should be part of a “layering on” process during which administrators take the opportunity to re-enforce established resources for reporting student safety issues. Students should be encouraged to seek help from teachers, counselors, and Student Resource Officers first, and from secondary resources when necessary. Moreover, tip-lines should not be limited to student use. School districts that install tip-lines are encouraged to promote them for the use of the entire school community, to include parents, teachers, volunteers, bus drivers, clericals, cafeteria workers, and others. To properly ensure anonymity, tip-lines should be administered by a reputable third party agency experienced in tip-line implementation and administration. Tip-lines administered from within the school district (such as e-mail based programs sometimes linked to a district’s Web site) invite compromise and potential liability.
We have learned that there is likely a portion of most student populations that will not use traditional resources to report information they suspect or know. Columbine showed us that. Most importantly, schools must take aggressive steps to build awareness among students and others for the types of behaviors that potentially place them at risk. Character education, now required for schools by many states, can help address this need. In this context, tip-lines can play a part in proactively reaching those members of the school community who may be reluctant to use traditional resources, for whatever reason. The first step is to recognize that they exist!
Bill Dolphin is a veteran security consultant with Texas based Asset Control, Inc., and co-developer of ChooseToCare, a Web-based student tip-line program. ChooseToCare can be accessed through the Web at www.ChooseToCare.com