The accounts show a disturbing similarity: three separate reports over a period of 24 hours have come through the anonymous “hot button” on the school’s website, all expressing concern about suicidal tendencies by the same student. Reports that will lead to a successful intervention and possibly, a life saved.
As part of an existing Virginia state contract, Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) recently took the lead among 20 schools in the Virginia Community College System and began using the new anonymous reporting and prevention platform, joining secondary schools and institutions of higher learning across 13 U.S. states and Canada as innovators looking to improve student safety. And halfway across the country in Tulsa, the public school system has used the same prevention tool for nearly two full school years. Both campuses have already achieved positive results and used the innovative web-based platform to prevent potential incidents.
Garth MacDonald, Emergency Management/Campus Safety Manager at TNCC, says when he took that job in March 2011, it was with the understanding that looking at how the college of 16,000-plus students captured reports of potential issues and problems was a top priority. He determined that the in-house reporting system seemed cumbersome and difficult to access from devices such as tablets and smartphones; also, only the individual who first looked at a report had access to the information.
“I did some research and realized the company that did our online training for computer security also offered a software program for reporting activity and threats. We decided that was the right route to follow, and it has proven itself a very versatile tool. When a report comes in, all team members receive a simultaneous notification, and any comments made are shared with all team members,” he says. “The system allows the person making the report to upload pictures, so individuals can use their phones to back up their statements with photos.”
Tenna Whitsel, student services coordinator with Tulsa Public Schools, described a similar research process, this one driven by a steering committee looking at how to address ongoing issues with bullying: “We learned that best practices recommended anonymous reporting, and we knew that students already have a problem with trust and don’t want to tell anyway. We knew we needed something more than a shoebox with the words “Anonymous Reporting Here.”
Her research led her to a webinar promoting a software package that she instantly knew was the right product for Tulsa, and the “hot button” to the reporting form went up on the district’s website in January 2011. Gary Rudick, campus police chief, says that although Tulsa initially focused on bullying, reports to the system cover a number of other issues, including students bringing firearms to school, threatening assault and dealing drugs. Those reports can prove a great asset to a 23-member police department charged with oversight of more than 40,000 students and 7,000 employees at more than 100 different sites. Rudick says the campus police review every report to determine if a criminal act has been committed rather than waiting for someone to come forward to file a formal complaint.
Whitsel adds that the system also provides oversight response to handling of allegations, holding administrators, employees and law enforcement accountable for followup: “One thing students really like is they get to enter a complaint through our website just like an adult, instead of having to come in and tell someone ‘They’re picking on me.’ It empowers them and makes them feel like they did something about it, which is a benefit that I didn’t anticipate.”
Just like in Tulsa, the nine-member TNCC team has also received a wide range of report types, covering everything from assault to suicidal gestures. If the emergency management team perceives an immediate danger, the information is passed on to campus police. Otherwise, team members do some legwork to ensure the allegation is valid and determine the best course of mitigating action: “That’s the basic goal, to prevent someone from becoming a casualty at their own hands, or, God forbid, coming onto the campus as an active shooter.”
Rudick says that “basic goal” has already been reached in Tulsa, where a tip led police to prevent a potential active shooter incident. Other tips have helped officers stop fights before they happen and intervene in drug deals. And the system has cross-checking capability that links reports about the same individual, even if they take place weeks or months apart. This allows schools to reopen cases if needed. Those cross checks, along with reporting features, help lead to the accountability that Whitsel emphasized as important, which is important to MacDonald as well.
“There are skeptics when it comes to anonymous reporting and anonymous complaints. With this system, just because someone files a report, it doesn’t trigger immediate action. It must go through a validation process and we must determine there is a valid need for an intervention. We don’t just take everything at face value,” he says.