The horrific shooting that killed 19 children and two of their teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May has rekindled conversations about school safety and security. Discussions and debates have emerged around physical security improvements, arming teachers, and other issues. In June, Congress passed the Safer Communities Act (PDF), which provides $300 million in extra funding to support school safety. But some experts argue that schools already doubled down on physical security in the wake of earlier mass shootings, and what is needed now is a stronger focus on the human dimension.
Indeed, what may be especially important is ensuring that students and other community members feel safe coming forward with information about a threat before tragedy strikes.
When students or others don't know how to report or aren't willing to do so, important opportunities to protect students may be missed. In a 2021 study (PDF) of averted attacks on K–12 schools, the Secret Service found that over 90 percent of would-be assailants shared their intention or desire to do harm, most often to their peers. Another study found that about half of school shooters gave a warning before they acted, but most went unrecognized and unreported.
About half of school shooters gave a warning before they acted, but most went unrecognized and unreported.Share on Twitter
Schools receive comparatively little guidance about how to implement an effective reporting program or how to build a robust reporting culture. Differences in school climate, student demographics, or police-community trust can all affect whether students or members of a school's wider community will report potential threats. This means some approaches will work better for some schools than others, and school leaders are challenged to identify those that will best meet their community's needs.
A recent research effort helps to fill this gap, highlighting seven key implications for school safety planning.
A trusting school climate where students and staff have strong relationships promotes and encourages reporting. Though the focus often is on fortifying schools with physical safety measures after tragedies, a strong school community where everyone is invested in its protection can be a robust protective measure. Positive school climates where students and staff value and respect reporting, and where students see adults as trusted individuals, can help to prevent school violence.
Give students multiple ways to report. School safety tip lines such as Safe2Tell Colorado, Safe2Say Pennsylvania, SafeOregon, and OK2Say Michigan, offer multiple methods for submitting reports: via mobile apps, online, phone, and text message. Students who are used to communicating virtually may prefer to submit tips that way; phone or email options can support other community members, like parents.
Students are often more comfortable submitting anonymous or confidential reports. A common fear among students is that reporting equals snitching, and concern about being ostracized by peers often prevents them from coming forward. Many school districts give students the option of submitting a report without revealing their identity. Confidential reporting programs collect information about individuals submitting a tip, but keep that information private. Students should be made aware of these options, and when their identity might be revealed.
Who receives the report matters. Many state- and district-level school safety tip lines recognize that not everyone is comfortable speaking directly with law enforcement. Some programs employ trained crisis counselors to interact in real time with students and others submitting a tip. This has proven especially valuable for reporting threats of self-harm, where students might be hesitant to call 911—and police might not be well positioned to respond if they did.
Teach everyone what and how to report. People who know how to recognize warning signs, what to report, and how to do so are more likely to come forward. Programs like Sandy Hook Promise's Say Something Anonymous Reporting System provide training and marketing materials for schools to use. Some states have ambassador programs to engage students in promoting reporting among their peers.
People who know how to recognize warning signs, what to report, and how to do so are more likely to come forward.Share on Twitter
Students and others are more likely to report when they know how schools will act on their information. Transparency about how a school or district has responded to past tips can help to build trust in the reporting system and help to address concerns about reports triggering police involvement rather than school intervention.
Everyone should be encouraged to participate, including schools, teachers, and other staff. Though school leaders and teachers are central to safety efforts, all adults can play a role in preventing school violence. A student who is uncomfortable talking with the principal about a potential threat might be willing to speak with the school librarian or another trusted staff member. Gaining the buy-in of all staff is critical to demonstrating the importance of reporting, ensuring the sustainability of a reporting program and strengthening school climate.
Pauline Moore is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Brian A. Jackson is a senior physical scientist at RAND.
This commentary originally appeared on The 74 on September 27, 2022. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.