More schools are using safety tips lines, but not just for gun violence prevention — the technology is addressing bullying, drug use and suicide risk among students.

Those are among the findings of a nationwide study looking at how schools are using tip lines as a safety measure. The report, which was conducted by RTI International, a nonprofit research institution, was based on responses from a nationally representative sample of 1,226 school principals surveyed between February and July 2019. The study, said to be the first of its kind, was funded by an award from the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to the findings, just over half (51%) of public middle and high schools were operating a tip line at the end of the last school year. Many tip lines were relatively new (60%), in operation three or fewer years, but 15% were in operation for 10 years or longer.

Colorado public schools, for example, has had its Safe2Tell Initiative since about 2004. The tip line was originally put in place in response to the Columbine High School mass shooting in 1999, but in recent years has been primarily used to report suicide threats, drugs and instances of bullying.

Oregon’s state program tells a similar story — out of the 4,905 tips that schools in that state received between 2017 and 2019, the majority were unrelated to possession of a weapon or a planned attack, the RTI report shows.

According to Michael Planty, one of the study’s researchers, this trend suggests tip lines could be effective for gauging school climate as opposed to their original purpose of identifying threats.

“Unlike target hardening, which may address one or a couple types of threats, this is an important tool for schools to have to really understand the wide scope of problems,” Planty told Education Dive.

According to the report, principals surveyed perceive tip lines as an effective safety strategy, addressing multiple threats:

  • 75% thought tip lines made them more aware of safety issues at their schools.

  • Over 50% said their schools’ tip lines had prevented violent incidents.

  • 66% believed tip lines allowed their schools to respond more effectively to bullying.

  • 73% said tip lines prevented incidents of self-harm or suicide.

Over half of school tip lines were staffed or monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and a school staff member received calls, texts or other entries in real time. And most offered a confidential or anonymous way for students, parents and others to report information.

The survey also found the types of middle and high schools more likely to have tip lines were ones with higher enrollments, located in suburbs and in low-poverty areas.

Concerns remain

But even though an overwhelming majority of principals surveyed have found the tool effective in everything from flagging potential safety concerns to preventing incidents of self-harm, concerns remain around tips submitted with insufficient information. Lack of student awareness and lack of student-submitted tips were also among the most common challenges reported.

Coupling the technology with a mental health curriculum that teaches students how to identify, report and respond to bullying or suicidal ideation could help solve this problem, Planty said.

Oregon’s program, for example, comes with resources schools can distribute to staff, parents and students.

Although raising awareness is “critical to tip line success,” the report said, most schools aren’t doing enough in person, like using student assemblies and classroom time, to distribute information, and their efforts could benefit from rethinking their marketing strategy.

Safety tip lines and bias could also work to adversely affect marginalized students. “There is a concern about how this might change the dynamics of recognizing school discipline problems in responding to these incidents when they come in,” Planty said.

But there is limited to no information around tip lines implications for school discipline disparities, an area researchers said they will be exploring next.

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