Do Tip Lines Replace School Counselors with Police?

A popular instrument of policing in and out of schools, the anonymous tip line has been featured frequently in the news lately. When the system works, police intervene. What does that mean for students? Where do school counselors come in to the equation?

In 2019, violence in schools is on the minds of everyone in a school, which is why legislation like the STOP School Violence act securing tiplines breezed through Congress.

Worst Case Scenarios are the Least Commonly Reported
EdWeek reports: “Though most reporting systems are created out of concern about school shootings, operators say they are far more likely to receive tips about suicide…and bullying than school violence.” The article also mentions that in 2017, nearly half of the reports received through one anonymous tip line were concerns about suicide whereas less than 10% were about school attacks.

What role do school counselors play?
With anonymous tiplines, school counselors play little to no role in filtering reports or supporting students post report. Oftentimes, they’re forced to report unsubstantiated anonymous threats for fear of liability, putting what may be a child needing support in front of law enforcement whose training in supporting mental health needs may range from lacking to disaster-inducing.  

What is the process for school counselors and tiplines?
The process for tip lines in schools isn’t standardized with a centralized dashboard, creating mountains more work for already taxed counselors. With the average student to counselor ratio at 482:1. Having an anonymous tip line system is a way for schools to circumvent the liability this shortage places on the school counselor’s office. But how do police handle being in front of students for emotional support?

Police training for crisis intervention
Over the last 5 years, police training for mental health crisis interventions in adults has come under fire.  Parents may wonder more specifically– what training for depressed children do police receive?

Hope for positive change in the future
A 2018 study exploring the efficacy of enhancing police training on youth focused crisis intervention team training reported an overwhelmingly positive response (86%) from police post training. We hope to see more such programs developed and enacted in the future, for the benefit of both students and police.

Do tip lines alone help students?

It is said that these tips greatly aid in preventing school shootings and in-school violence. They’re told that having tip lines available to students at their fingertips, enables instantaneous reporting and thus prevention. In fact, according to this Pew article, they are only part of the puzzle:

“School districts need a system for keeping track of and addressing worrisome behavior way before a student reaches a crisis point, said William Woodward, one of the report authors and director of training and technical assistance at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado. The center is working with Colorado schools to improve intervention.”

Police are acting as school counselors because tip lines, some of which are funded by the government, force counselors to report before engaging with their students directly and offering their support. Better training for police will help improve outcomes in the future, but better platforms for counselors to field tips, whether anonymous or with names given, improve student outcomes now.

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How to Improve Anonymous Tip Lines in Schools

Anonymous tip lines, despite their limitations, are the only measures many schools have in place to support and protect their students. Let’s look at how to improve anonymous tip lines.

Add Counselor/Student Messenger for Long Term Student Support
Tiplines only allow students to report incidents but gives them no way to continue a conversation about the incidents. Adding counselor messaging to anonymous tip lines allows students to ask for help before incidents in a way that’s comfortable for them.

Reduce Paperwork, Use a Counselor/Student Messenger
Many public schools still use a paper-based system of reporting in school counselors offices. A platform based messenger workflow reduces paperwork, giving counselors and administrators more time for more effective connections with students. Adding a messenger saves counselors and students time– especially one with automated follow ups customizable per incident type. Also, be sure the Counselor/Student Messenger your school chooses has a Do Not Disturb function for weekends and holidays.

Get Analytics, Track Growth
Something missing from most anonymous tip lines is in analytics reporting. Reporting apps with analytics allow administrators to track the health of their school communities and strategically plan. Without a way to measure how you’re doing, how do you know the intervention your school has onboarded is working?
Add an Anti-Bullying Curriculum
Without the curriculum to reduce bullying in schools, anonymous tip lines are relegated to being a reactive effort rather than a proactive solution. Adding an authentic and relatable curriculum through posters, school programs, social media and in-app resources to tip lines are great places to start to prevent incidents from ever happening.

Counselor/Student Messenger + Curriculum
A well-planned curriculum in addition to a Student/Counselor Messenger creates a supportive environment that feels safe for the student, helping to prevent incidents in the first place.

Add Geolocations to Anonymous Reports
With geolocations, students are still able to respond without their names. However, when the report calls for it, reporting apps for schools with geolocations required can help students get the help they need in the event of an active shooter or other violent situations.

Training Staff on App and Curriculum
Onboarding any new app requires training to encourage adoption. Ensure the training loops in the curriculum to help teachers frame best practices of the product for the students.

Anonymous Tiplines: A Source of Bullying

In 2019, school administrators know that anonymous tip lines mean managing false reports. Here we examine the 43 year old anonymous tip line, its pitfalls and how anti-bullying apps can increase bullying behaviors in schools.

How to improve anonymous tip lines

What is an anonymous tip line?
The idea behind an anonymous tip line is very simple, well established and hasn’t evolved much since the first one: Crimestoppers. Crimestoppers of Puget Sound shares how the project was founded by a police officer investigating a murder:

“In 1976…he conceived the idea of …guaranteed anonymity for anyone who was willing to call him with information and put up a reward from his own pocket to encourage someone to provide a lead that would help identify those responsible for the murder.”

The Simplicity of Crimestoppers
This tragic story has a fairytale ending. The good guy caught the bad guy and justice was served. Many anecdotes from anonymous tip line apps are similarly heroic and simple. This has allowed the process and the perception of Crimestoppers to stay the same without examination.

Unfortunately for anyone interested in analyzing complex realities, there has not been any independent studies done on the validity of these tip lines.

So, do tip lines work?
Anonymous tip lines, whether they’re phone numbers or mobile apps, receive a lot of tips. What’s unclear is how many of those reports are valid and how effective tip lines really are.

How effective are tip lines?
In short, it’s impossible to say how effective any tip line is without a study, said a research study developer who spoke to us off the record. Without the reports from the anonymous tip line apps sold to schools (which are under no obligation to disclose the effectiveness of their products), we only have anecdotal evidence on their effectiveness to look to– all of which is 100% positive when the apps that follow the anonymous reporting model, such as Safe2Tell, SaySomething and Okay2Say are self reporting.

How would we design a study on the effectiveness of tip lines?

But what other perspectives are there?

Administrators indicate that  anti-bullying apps can cause harm
Anonymous tip lines allow people to report information without fear of social fallout but also without accountability. As any school administrator with a tip line to manage will tell you, tip lines are often misused, especially by students, as instruments of revenge and even bullying.

Students Say Anti-Bullying apps increase bullying
Look to any app store review and you’ll see dozens of students reporting that they have been targeted through the app.  

App Store Reviews of Okay2Say
App Store Reviews of Safe2Tell
App Store Reviews of SaySomething

News stories discuss the limitations of anonymous reporting as well. One student mentioned in EdWeek, Lucy Geisleman, 15 had an especially unfortunate and all too common experience:

“Pranksters called in three false drug and suicide reports about her, Geisleman said, and police twice pulled her out of class to discuss the tips.”

Anonymous tips have been examined in podcasts, in court cases and in news media. School administrators and school counselors would do well by their students to demand efficacy information before approving any new apps be tested on their students, possibly to their detriment