Anonymous Reporting Systems

Episode 4, Understanding Firearm-Related Injury and School Violence Podcast Series

In this episode, Dr. Libby Messman shares how anonymous reporting systems can be crucial in maintaining a safe and secure environment. We delve into the research surrounding the effectiveness of anonymous reporting systems and provide an overview of the existing systems currently in place.

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  • Access the full Understanding Firearm-Related Injury and School Violence here
  • Listen to the series on YouTube

Resources

This podcast was produced by Katy Hunter, Research Assistant at the National Center for School Safety.

Transcript

Libby Messman: Anonymous reporting systems provide an avenue for parents and community members to also contribute to school safety by reporting things that they’re concerned about, but how we connect with the community and get them engaged is something that research needs to understand more. So I also think it’s important that we think about equity in the context of anonymous reporting systems.

Katy Hunter: Hello and welcome to Progress Report. This podcast is produced by the National Center for School Safety, based out of the University of Michigan. We serve as the STOP School Violence program’s national training and technical assistant center, and we are focused on improving school safety and preventing school violence across the United States. In this episode, we will be speaking with a research investigator about anonymous reporting systems, specifically the research that goes into evaluating the effectiveness of various systems and the factors at play that can influence that effectiveness. Let’s start with, who are you and what do you do? 

Libby Messman: Yeah, so my name is Libby Messman, and I’m a research investigator in the School of Public Health in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan. And I study youth violence prevention and youth empowerment, and I also teach course on youth violence prevention as well.

Katy Hunter: How did you get interested in youth violence prevention and youth empowerment? 

Libby Messman: I received my PhD from the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan. And during my grad student time, I was researching student motivation, especially in middle schools, and what motivates students to learn. And through my school-based research when I was working on my dissertation I realized that school climate and school safety really impact how well students learn and how they feel about school in general. And so I decided to pursue public health so I could look at precursors to youth violence and ways that schools can help support students feel safe and also excel academically, socially, and emotionally. I did videotaped classroom observations of peer interactions when they were working on math and science, and then also did a survey and sort of looked at how stereotypes about different types of kids and whether or not they’re good at math, whether those stereotypes are reflected or amplified in the context of their conversations with peers.

Katy Hunter: One thing I wanted to talk with you about today was anonymous reporting systems, for those who might be less familiar, could you give an overview of what an anonymous reporting system is? 

Libby Messman: Yeah, an anonymous reporting system is a way for students, teachers, and community members to report concerns about someone or themselves or report threats of violence. Typically they come in the form of like a hotline or a tip line, and there’s SMS chat reporting systems. Sandy Hook Promise has an app for their reporting system, and the main thing is that the tips that come in are anonymous, so the reporter is never identified, and the tips are generally sourced to a third party like a crisis center or law enforcement, but there’s a lot of variation and how they’re implemented. 

Anonymous reporting systems can prevent firearm injuries in schools by making administrators and teachers aware of problems that are happening, even precursors to violence like bullying can be reported through an anonymous reporting system. And interestingly, I just saw Sandy Hook Promise released a press release about a planned violent attack on elementary middle schools and high schools in North Carolina, and that attack was prevented through the use of their Say Something anonymous reporting system.

Katy Hunter: Well, so it sounds like these reporting systems can really help prevent violence in school communities.

Libby Messman: Yeah, I think they can directly prevent violence, for example, in the case of a credible threat that’s acted upon, but they can also be a way for students to report sort of those less severe but more frequent instances of bullying, exclusion, isolation, mental health concerns, self-harm. So it really provides a way for administrators to know about what’s going on with the students and how to address those smaller issues before they escalate.

Katy Hunter: Do you have a sense of how ubiquitous anonymous reporting systems are in the United States? 

Libby Messman: Yeah, so as of 2020, there were 26 states that mandated the availability of an anonymous reporting system for public schools. So Florida has the Fortify Florida anonymous reporting system. Both North Carolina and Pennsylvania use the Say Something anonymous reporting system statewide. And this was really based off of example of Colorado and they implemented their Safe2Tell system after Columbine. So they’re pretty ubiquitous. The problem is that there’s a whole lot of different types of anonymous reporting systems and wide variation in implementation, so there’s still a lot we don’t know about what makes them effective and why.

Katy Hunter: So speaking of what we do and don’t know, could you describe the state of research on these systems, so we can get a sense of where there might be gaps or avenues for future research.

Libby Messman: So the information and research on anonymous reporting systems actually started in the medical field and in finance and aviation as a way for employees to report things that were happening at their workplace. So the bulk of the actual research is focused in those areas, and there’s really limited research on how anonymous reporting systems work in schools. Along with the team from Sandy Hook, I wrote a systematic review on anonymous reporting systems in schools. And we identified only four peer-reviewed studies published in the literature that had examined the effectiveness of anonymous reporting systems for school violence prevention, and three of them were dissertations, and only one of them was published in the peer review journal. So there needs to be more work on anonymous reporting system specifically in the school setting. 

And also we need to understand what aspects of anonymous reporting systems are effective and what schools need in order to support students and teachers usage of the systems. In addition to my systematic review, my colleague, Hsing-Fang Hsieh, published a study in the Journal of School Violence recently, examining the effectiveness of the Sandy Hook Promise Say Something anonymous reporting system. It was the first randomized control trial of these systems, and she found that the Say Something anonymous reporting system improved both cognitive and behavioral outcomes among students, such as their intention to report and their self-efficacy for reporting threats. And also reduced overall school violence.

Additionally, they found that when schools promote and encourage the use of the anonymous reporting system, students did even better. They reported improved self-efficacy and intention to report. So these are really encouraging findings that show the potential usefulness of anonymous reporting systems for violence prevention. But I think we really need to tease out the different aspects of the reporting systems, how they’re implemented, and what’s most effective for broad usage.

Katy Hunter: When we were talking about school safety, they’re these intersections and complexities that we need to be aware of as we roll out new systems and programs, and it sounds like that’s definitely true for anonymous reporting systems.

Libby Messman: Yeah, for sure. And I also think it’s really important that we focus on the community as well, because we know that school violence isn’t limited to the school building.  There’s a lot of spillover between community and school violence, so anonymous reporting systems provide an avenue for parents and community members to also contribute to school safety by reporting things that they’re concerned about. But how we connect with the community and get them engaged is something that research needs to understand more.

Katy Hunter: I’m curious if you have any thoughts or examples on avenues that school safety teams and their community partners can focus on to keep school communities safe.

Libby Messman: Yeah, so one example that I can think of is the work the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation is doing in the Bronx with the D9 school district, they are partnering with the D9 administration and teachers to sort of co-design a violence prevention program that’s based off of the Say Something program that they already have. But the purpose of this collaboration with D9 is to really tailor the curriculum in the programming to be culturally relevant for specific students in specific contexts. And also working on establishing community partners by getting parents involved, other community organizations involved, establishing lines of communication and engagement.

So we’re really excited about this project, and we will be evaluating the implementation of this program in the Bronx to understand how Sandy Hook tailors their programming and how making it culturally relevant matters for its effectiveness.

Katy Hunter: Using this example, can you give us a sense of what research projects and schools look like in practice? 

Libby Messman: So right now, we are evaluating the pre-implementation processes, so we’re attending meetings between Sandy Hook and D9 administration and teachers and principals, and we’re documenting those meetings and the questions that come up. And we’re gonna do focus groups and interviews to understand how do they feel about the program, do they think it’ll work for their students, how do they feel about this partnership with Sandy Hook. Doing research in schools can involve a lot of staff time and energy, and schools don’t always have access to that, so really understanding how a partnership with Sandy Hook can help ease the burden on staff and sort of support the school safety effort in a broad way.

In the fall, these schools who are actively pre-planning the Spring, they’re gonna be actually implementing the program in the fall, and so we’ll be doing pre/post surveys with the students. Also continuing our staff surveys and focus groups so we can understand, does the program actually work? 

Katy Hunter: All of that to me is underscoring the importance of these research partnerships and evaluation of these programs to see how effective they are and what might help with implementation when considering the context of the school in the community.

Libby Messman: Yeah, absolutely. Using the resources from the community and the community knowledge and getting everyone on board and involved is really important.

Katy Hunter: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like to share? 

Libby Messman: So I also think it’s important that we think about equity in the context of anonymous reporting systems, so how our tips handled? Does that differ between different types of school districts? The reporter is anonymous, but the person that they are reporting on that information is not anonymous, so are there differences in how tips are handled depending on who it’s about and in what area it comes from. Are some tips more likely to be graded as severe and needing immediate intervention or other tips coming from a different area, less likely? So understanding differences and how tips are followed up on, I think is a really important next step.

Katy Hunter: That’s a great point, and that’s definitely a concern we’ve heard, how are these tips being handled? How are we making sure that the systems are not disproportionately affecting some groups over others? And that we are keeping all students safe and not having a negative impact on certain populations. So I think that’s a great reminder. Is there anywhere you would direct a school safety team to find more information about anonymous reporting systems, the options for those systems and the research behind them? 

Libby Messman: I would recommend folks check out the Sandy Hook Promise website, sandyhookpromise.org. There’s a lot of resources, activities, lesson plans, learning how to set up Save Promise Clubs, all of that’s available on the website. So schools can implement either one activity or multiple activities or curriculums. And the good thing about their programming is it’s really customizable and adaptable to your context. So it can be used in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.

Katy Hunter: Thank you for coming on and talking with us today. 

On the next episode of progress report:

Cynthia Ewell Foster: These systems, the kids are living in their families, their schools, their communities, their churches, they have this great capacity to either be a protector for kids or to be a stressor for kids. And I think as a community, as a society, our interest is making sure these systems are taking care of kids. When someone is at risk for suicide, one of the most important life-saving things we can do is notice and talk about it.

Brent Miller: Thank you for tuning into this episode, for more information about the National Center for school safety. Visit our website, nc2s.org You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook. This episode of Project Report was produced by the National Center for school safety at the University of Michigan. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes and music is, Thanks to Makaih Beats. This project was supported by cooperative agreement, number 2019-YS-BX-K001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justices, office of justice programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, monitoring, apprehending, registering and tracking. Point of view, our opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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Duration

14:49

Topic Areas

Notification Technology

Crisis Timeline

Prevention Planning

Audience

School Personnel

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