Preventing Violence in Schools: Encouraging Students to Report Threats

Researchers found that school climate is one of the best predictors of whether students will report a threat. Students who feel a strong connection to their school, a sense of belonging, are much more likely to come forward. Students who feel alienated or think they’ll cause trouble if they report a concern are much more likely to keep it to themselves.

That underscores how critical it is for schools to build a trusting environment where students believe their concerns will be taken seriously. That takes intention on the part of every teacher and staff member: chatting with students in the halls, going to sports games and other after-school activities. The schools that do it well, one district leader said, are those “with visible staff … who are sitting with students at lunch and greeting them at arrival.”

Tip Lines
That’s the foundation of any successful school reporting system, researchers found—but it’s not enough on its own. Students still have to navigate hallways where speaking out is often seen as snitching, and keeping quiet is the easiest option. Several studies have identified that “code of silence” and fear of retribution as a significant barrier to student threat reporting.

Roughly half of U.S. states have established school tip lines in recent years to give students an option other than going to a teacher or administrator. Many allow students to submit a report without providing their name. The school officials RAND interviewed said that one feature is almost as important as establishing the tip line itself, given how deeply student concerns about being found out run.

Existing tip lines have also found that threats of violence are only one category of what students report when they have the chance. If anything, students are more likely to call in concerns about a friend talking about suicide, classmates using drugs, or their own experiences with bullying. Tip lines aren’t a cost-free option; it takes time and resources to follow up on those reports. “But the return on investment,” one school official told the researchers, “is life.”

Yet there is no single model that states or school districts can follow. Some tip lines route reports to law enforcement; others take pains to assure students that not every report will automatically involve a law-enforcement response. Many allow students to file a report by phone, but also by text or mobile app, an especially valuable feature given the target audience.

One of the first statewide school tip lines, Colorado’s Safe2Tell, is still cited as a gold standard. It started taking calls in 2004, a few years after the shooting at Columbine High School. It fielded its 100,000th report in December 2021—“100,000 times,” its director said in an annual report to the community, when “a young person felt comfortable speaking up to prevent harm.”

Training Events
But even a gold-standard tip line isn’t enough, either. When that gunman stormed his high school with a shotgun and a machete in 2013, his classmates had the number for Safe2Tell in their pockets. It was on a sticker on the back of their student ID cards. But a subsequent investigation found no evidence the school had trained students on how to use Safe2Tell or what to report. Not one student called the tip line before the shooting, even though several knew the gunman had a hit list, a furious grudge against a teacher, and a gun.

Students often don’t realize the importance of the information they have, school safety officials told the researchers. They often wave off threats as a joke, or don’t want to get their friends in trouble. Breaking through that requires more than a poster on the wall or a sticker on an ID card. Schools should consider all-school assemblies, classroom presentations, and other regular reminders that every student has a responsibility to keep the school community safe. School officials told the researchers they often see an uptick in reports immediately following such training events.

An important part of that outreach is letting students and other members of the community know what happens to tips that get submitted. Several state-level tip lines publish regular statistical summaries that show, for example, how many tips were forwarded to law enforcement or how many were handled by crisis counselors. That provides assurance to students and the community that their concerns are taken seriously.

“It goes back to the need to make students more comfortable with reporting,” RAND’s Moore said—“to the notion that building a positive and inclusive environment is the main thing that has to happen to encourage reporting.”

Several states have started to enlist the students themselves to help get the word out. “It hits an adolescent differently [when they hear it] from a peer,” one school official said, “rather than from someone their parents’ age.” Colorado’s Safe2Tell, for example, launched a student ambassador program for high school students to raise awareness and help break the code of silence among their fellow students.

“There is a culture of silence; there is a stigma around reporting,” said one ambassador, a high school junior named Bella. She asked not to use her last name.

“A lot of students may be afraid that they’d be labeled a snitch,” she said. “They have to think of the bigger picture. They have to think long term—like, if I file this report, I’m going to help someone, protect someone. That’s going to be worth it, even if there is some temporary backlash.”

“Baby steps,” she added. “Just slowly changing the culture.”

Doug Irving is a communications analyst at RAND. This article is published courtesy of RAND.