Anonymity Spurs Students to Report Potential Violence
Students often know about the threat of violence in a school -- even when administrators and teachers are in the dark. Yet fear of reprisal or being labeled a snitch may keep students silent. Programs that provide anonymity to students and others reporting crime, violence, or the threat of violence can help make our schools safer places for learning. But, administrators caution, such programs are just one piece of an effort to make schools safer places. Included: Education World talks with administrators who use online violence reporting programs in their schools.
"We don't have a crime problem on our campus," most administrators will say, if asked. "Our students learn in a safe environment."
"Don't ask an administrator about crime and violence on the campus," Larry Wieda, founder of Scholastic Crime Stoppers of America, told Education World. "Ask the students. Administrators often aren't really aware of what's happening in their schools. Students know about stealing from lockers or threats of violence even when administrators and teachers know nothing about it."
"In nearly every case of recent school violence, there were warnings," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. He cites a high school shooting in Austin, Texas, in which two students were injured. Later, an inquiry discovered 54 students had seen the weapon before it was accidentally fired. None of them reported it.
Guaranteeing anonymity to the individual reporting a problem, Wieda says, is the key to making student violence-stopping programs work.
Wieda, a Boulder (Colorado) police officer for 24 years, founded the Scholastic Crime Stoppers Program in 1983 when students at a local high school asked the principal for a school program based on Crime Stoppers International, an adult anti-crime movement aimed at cracking unsolved crimes. The Scholastic Crime Stoppers of America, or SCSA, has about 2,000 programs worldwide.
"The programs identify criminal activity and reduce violence, victimization, and crime," said Wieda. "The students own the program with the support and supervision of the school administration. The program is not-for-profit, and students raise funds to launch programs and keep them going."
Methods for reporting criminal activity vary from program to program. Anonymous hot lines are a common method; other programs use Web sites.
Asked whether anonymity is absolutely guaranteed, Wieda said students never have to reveal their names unless they choose to. In some cases, though, where a crime is involved, a small monetary reward may be offered that a student can collect by giving up anonymity.
"The key with SCSA," said Wieda, "is that the chapters are student-run and student-empowered. That means the students own the operation, and it gets away from the concept of 'narcing' [snitching]. With supervision from an administrator, a student board of directors sets the ground rules for how each chapter is set up."
The best feature of anonymous reporting? It works, said Wieda. "Scholastic Crime Stoppers has stopped many crimes and violent incidents," Wieda said. "Anonymous tips have solved locker thefts, stopped bullying that could have led to greater violence, and headed off violent incidents."
SCSA is probably the largest network of anonymous reporting programs for students, but others are springing up. For Anthony Lavalle, founder and director of Report-It, anonymity and confidentiality overshadow all else involved in reporting school violence and crime. Report-It is a commercial online reporting system that serves schools from elementary to college levels. Marketing of the site began in the fall of 1999, and it currently has about 20 clients on board.
Students in a school are first to see early warning signs of school violence, Lavalle told Education World, and sometimes only they can prevent violence from occurring. Report-It enables students to communicate danger without labeling them as snitches or putting themselves in harm's way by angering other students who might hurt them.
Report-It operates through a Web site. The Web site's home page advises users to consider speaking to a parent or guardian or another trusted adult, before resorting to Report-It. If a situation could immediately harm someone or the school, Report-It advises the visitor call 911.
Schools enrolled in the service receive a student Report-It Web page, a user name, passwords for students and administrators, a strict confidentiality clause, and a secure report-retrieval system that guarantees anonymity to students who use the system.
Schools enrolled in the service receive a Report-It Web page for which students can use secure passwords to report violence or the potential for it. The school's individual Report-It Web Page includes information about the school and the school motto as well as telephone numbers for school administrators and other key resource people and local resources, such as the police department or a suicide prevention hot line. It also includes directions for submitting an anonymous report.
The folks at Report-It never know the identity of the anonymous tipster, nor do administrators at the school. In this way, Lavalle points out, students making a report can be ensured absolute anonymity. Report-It immediately forwards all reports about a school to people called "designated recipients," such as the principal, a counselor, or a safety resource officer. Those people acknowledge receiving the tip to Report-It, then investigate and call in police when that's warranted.
Report-It charges an annual enrollment fee of $365 plus a one-time setup fee that depends on the number of students in a district or school. Lavalle says organizations such as the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington, D.C., and the Poughkeepsie (New York) Police-Mayor's Youth Council have sponsored school Web sites.
Some administrators seem to enroll in Report-It to maintain a certain comfort level.
"I wanted a way for students to anonymously let someone know that something bad might be happening," Deanne Allen told Education World. She is the safe schools coordinator for the Clay County (Kentucky) Public Schools, in which three schools -- a middle school, an area technology center, and an alternative school -- have joined Report-It.
"I see it as just another route of communication," Allen said. "Students could talk to a teacher or an administrator, and many would. We have an effective cops-in-schools program, and I think adults in the schools have a good rapport with students. But it can't hurt to have another communication vehicle."
The program has also been used to report harassment in schools. "We need to know about anything that makes it difficult for a student to learn," Allen continued. "We want to be proactive instead of reactive."
The middle school and high school in Poughkeepsie, New York, also use Report-It. "We had a hot line, but the cost of operating it all the time became prohibitive," Ted Peterson, the high school principal, told Education World. "We decided to try Report-It. The anonymity factor convinced us to go with it."
Peterson, however, doesn't believe one communication vehicle is sufficient for any school. He described the Poughkeepsie High School's overall communications program. "For nine years, we've operated on the principle that communication is the key to school safety. About once a week, students meet with teachers, the principal, and a guest speaker. A lot comes out of the meeting that we call Principal's Lunch.We have speakers talk about issues like school violence, teen pregnancy, AIDS, a lack of spirituality today -- all kinds of things. There is always time for students to voice their concerns at these meetings."
Lavalle supports other forms of communication among students, teachers, and administrators, but he also believes schools need to invest in a fully anonymous and confidential system that allows students to report crime and violence or risk increasingly unsafe schools.
"Students seldom feel comfortable or safe conveying this information to school officials or law enforcement. Added to that is a reluctance stemming from fear of retribution that keeps them from turning someone in," Lavalle says. "We emphasize that 'telling is not tattling when safety is at stake' and provide them with a system that they are comfortable using."
Article by Sharon Cromwell
Copyright © 2006 Education World