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Today's Lessons: Tip Lines

Alaska’s bucolic Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley hardly seemed like a flashpoint for school violence. But it might well have been if a 17-year-old Palmer High School student had been able to carry out his plans. The student was preparing to vent his private rage last April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings. However, late on the night of April 18, a phone rang in distant Columbus, Ohio. An anonymous message was left on an around-the-clock school safety tip line. A call center associate quickly informed Mat-Su police, and the potential shooter was apprehended before he could pull the trigger.

Schools cannot hope to prevent the kind of violent targeted act that nearly occurred at Mat-Su’s Palmer High without a powerful proactive tool—insider information. Toll-free, anonymous tip lines, such as the one that prevented the Palmer High incident, are one valuable source of that type of information.

In the wake of the Columbine tragedy and other high-profile school shooting incidents, schools across the country spent a great deal of time, effort, and money trying to improve their safety and security through the use of conventional security components. The advances that schools have made with personnel, training, procedures, drills, hardware, and technology have certainly enhanced overall safety and security. Despite these advancements, schools are still not likely to prevent a student from committing a violent act unless they have a way of being forewarned.

Unfortunately, intelligence gathering is often left to the teachers, custodians, administrators, and school resource officers (SROs), who will—it is believed—become the students’ trusted confidants. In reality, administrators and faculty are busy with nonsecurity functions and have little time to sniff out threats of violence. SROs and security officers do try to work proactively, but because of who they are, the likelihood is that only a small percentage of students will confide in them.

A Killer’s Profile

Getting inside tips is critical, because attackers do not fit any profile that educators can use to help detect them in advance. That was a key finding of the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Secret Service’s The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative, issued in 2003, which studied 37 incidents of school violence that occurred between 1974 and 2000 in 26 states.

The study found that attackers came from varied backgrounds, ethnicities, and family situations. In addition, they attained various academic achievement levels. Although nearly all attackers were males and most had experience with or access to firearms, they generally had no previous run-ins with the law. Many had been bullied by other students, but few attackers were stereotypical loners and outcasts. The majority, the report stated, “appeared to socialize with mainstream students or were considered mainstream students themselves.”

At the same time, the study found that violent targeted attacks were not impulsive and had at least some planning, which means that there may have been an opportunity for other students or friends to hear of the plans. In fact, in nearly two-thirds of the incidents that were scrutinized, multiple individuals saw behavior indicating that an attack was imminent or were told about the plan.

In one chilling case noted in the report, more than two dozen students were on the scene to watch the attack from the safety of a balcony—one with a camera to record the event. In nearly all cases, the persons possessing information beforehand were the attacker’s peers, including friends, schoolmates, or siblings. The report concluded that the only viable proactive option for preventing violent targeted attacks was for educators and law enforcement to “develop the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowledgeable information that might indicate there is a risk.

Tips on Tip Lines

Tip lines can be run internally, by local law enforcement, or by an outside company. For any tip line to work, it must be truly anonymous, monitored around the clock, and trusted to be free of bias. It should also be widely promoted.

Anonymity. Even in the workplace, where the victims or witnesses are adults, it is important that sources be able to report concerns to the authorities anonymously. This is all the more important for school-aged youths, because they are more likely to be intimidated by peers. These victims or witnesses will stay silent rather than risk retribution. These students may be frightened off by the idea of being identified.

A tip line run by a private service may be the best way to convince would-be informants that their identity will be kept confidential. Persons who choose to use a tip line have already decided that they are uncomfortable speaking directly with anyone in a position of authority, which includes school administrators who may recognize students’ voices, identify the originating phone number through caller ID, or be the subject of complaints.

Police, in addition to their status as authority figures, possess the technical ability to determine the origin of a tip-line phone call. Despite law enforcement’s genuinely good intentions, the deterrent to callers is evident.

In fact, in the early 1990s, the author, a former sergeant with the Town of Greece, New York, Police Department, was involved in the establishment of a community- crime tip line. Even though the police-monitored tip line was promoted in area schools, it never received a single call from anyone at the schools.

Availability. Another important consideration is whether the tip line can be reached at any time of the day or night. When local police are in charge, continuous monitoring may not be an issue, but when a tip line is handled by the school, the only off-hour access may be through an answering machine or voicemail system. That is not true 24-hour service.

Most calls to tip lines come in after school and in the evening. Therefore, information of a time-sensitive or life-threatening nature could remain stuck on an answering machine for days until a staffer retrieves the message. At that point, it may already be too late to prevent a violent targeted attack. Besides, some callers may be reluctant to leave a message, which means that the information goes unreported.

A tip line run by an outside company should be monitored around the clock. That means any urgent calls are immediately relayed to district representatives or law enforcement. Additionally, depending on how the system is structured, someone may have the opportunity to ask the caller questions.

Bias. Finally, another concern of callers is whether their calls will be properly addressed. Even the perception that school administrators may disregard, give low priority to, or simply deny the existence of a call that might cause legal problems or embarrassment may deter those with information from phoning in.

Tip-line service providers should keep a transcript or summary and an audio recording of each call. They should report all calls received. At the author’s company, Security Voice, Inc., the Safe School Helpline service is contractually obligated to report all calls and to maintain copies of all transcribed messages for one year. By policy, the service also maintains an audio recording for a year.

The service requires, at a minimum, that the school provide a designated primary contact and two backup contacts. The designated representative is contacted by phone and promptly faxed a report that includes the time and date of the call, the name of the associate who took the call, a case number, and a verbatim transcript of the call. The caller’s age and gender are withheld.

The following is a real-life example of a verbatim transcript of a call received by Security Voice and relayed to the involved school: “My grandson has told me that he heard a girl…talking to another girl, and told this girl that she was going to start bringing a gun to school. And then she told the other girl that she was serious. He overheard all of this and he is pretty concerned and would appreciate it if you’d check up on this.”

After each report, the service requires that the school fill out a form and return it to the response center, indicating what action was taken in response to the report. It also provides an opportunity for the school to ask clarifying questions or request additional details. The person who initially filed the tip can phone the tip line at any time and provide the case ID number to obtain information on what the school’s return report says.

Promotion. In its Guide to Preventing and Responding to School Violence, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Department of Justice recommend “aggressive” advertising of tip-line phone numbers through such mechanisms as student handbooks, special handouts, postcards, posters, stickers on lockers, refrigerator magnets, key chains, and pencils showing the number. Some managed tip-line services provide the schools with promotional items as part of the service package.

Promotional items should stress anonymity. One poster provided by Security Voice, Inc. states in bold letters, “Your name is never asked.”

Security Voice also provides administrators and teachers with how-to guides and videos to be used during classroom or assembly presentations. This awareness training needs to be done annually and periodically refreshed.

Textbook Cases

Advanced information from a tip line probably would not have stopped a February 2004 shooting incident at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, New York, because the subsequent investigation showed no foreknowledge. But the incident nonetheless led the school to look for ways to become more proactive about preventing future violence.

After Superintendent Terrance Brewer of East Greenbush Central Schools considered various options, he selected the tip-line service Security Voice because of its low cost—which Brewer estimates is $1 per student annually—and long track record (the company has been around since 1997).

Brewer has watched the performance of the tip line for a year and a half. He is especially happy with the feedback mechanism built into the service, because many callers want to know what action was taken after they gave their tip. The reporting mechanism ensures that there is a record that can be relayed back to callers.

Brewer estimates that the East Greenbush tip line has received about 40 calls. None have included information on a violent targeted attack, but there have been calls about bullying from both students and concerned parents. The information provided has allowed administrators to intervene in situations that had the potential to escalate.

Another school offers an example of how the tip line can prevent a tragedy from occurring. In 2003, the company’s tip line for Newark City, Ohio, schools received a call reporting that a middle-school student had told his friends that he had a gun and would use it to kill his classmates. When police went to the student’s home, they discovered the weapon and ammunition. The student was arrested and expelled.

Other Benefits

School tip lines not only gather useful information on violent targeted attacks, but they also provide intelligence on drug abuse and sales, vandalism, and theft. In addition, they get calls from students who are depressed and suicidal. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, almost one in five teens has seriously considered suicide, and more than one in 12 has made a suicide attempt within the past year.

A managed tip line may provide callers with immediate, around-the-clock access to a live suicide crisis counselor as an ancillary service. For example, at Security Voice, a recorded introduction tells the caller that there is a button-press option to be immediately connected to a suicide crisis counselor. Nationally, between July 2004 and June 2005, 6 percent of callers to our hot line chose that option. Another 3 percent of callers indicated that other students were contemplating suicide or were thinking of hurting themselves.

In one instance, the mother of a student called to report that her child had seen girls in a middle school bathroom cutting themselves with razor blades and deeply stabbing themselves and each other with safety pins. The girls then hid the wounds beneath their clothing. The woman, who revealed the students’ names, is quoted in the transcript saying, “I’m not calling to get them in trouble. But I do believe they need help…before something goes wrong and they accidentally kill themselves.”

Empowering students and parents to help make schools safer by giving anonymous tips is essential. This confidential means of reporting can give school officials the information they need to prevent the next tragedy.