Tip Line Blueprint Offers Help to Schools

In the present climate, school districts often find themselves considering which options to pursue in implementing a safety plan. Hire school resource officers? Install metal detectors? Implement a tip line? All are viable options, and each is accompanied by its own set of questions to answer and issues to consider.

For schools considering a tip line as part of a safety plan, the recently released School Tip Line Toolkit: A Blueprint for Implementation and Sustainability, offers help in considering the issues and navigating key decisions.

According to the Blueprint (p. 1), tip lines provide students, parents, school personnel and community members with a “safe and anonymous or confidential way to report a threat or potential threat to student or school safety, thereby equipping authorities with the information needed to respond to threats and avert tragedy …. Tip lines are promising, but much is still unknown about their effectiveness.”

A key advantage of tip lines is that they provide a way to tap into students’ knowledge of, and information about, potential threats and problems, including bullying, suicidal tendencies and substance abuse. They give students a way to reach out and try to obtain help for themselves or others without breaking the “code of silence” that often causes them to keep information to themselves.

“We created this blueprint to examine the multiple factors that anyone considering implementing a school tip line, or enhancing an existing one, needs to consider,” says Michael Planty, Center Director for Community Safety and Crime Prevention at RTI International, which produced the Blueprint with National Institute of Justice funding. “It’s not just putting a number up and you’re done. In order to effectively harvest information from students, parents and others, you need to have a tip line that is multi-faceted and uses multiple forms of media such as Instagram, Facebook and texting. The Blueprint also addresses what to do with the information once you have it.”

Some of the issues school districts need to consider include the mechanics of setting up a tip line, training for those who process the information, responding to tips, archiving and maintaining data, determining best practices, obtaining funding and risks to consider. A key feature, Planty says, is deciding where to house the tip line: should it be based with local law enforcement or based in the school?

“If it’s school-based, you might not have immediate access to some of the other information that law enforcement has at its disposal, but on the other hand you don’t want a law enforcement response to every tip that comes in. We often think about school shootings and other violent threats when we think about school safety, but consistently, more than 50 percent of tips received are about self-harm or suicide ideation. In that case, law enforcement might need to conduct a wellness check to make sure someone is not in immediate danger. There are other instances when the school needs to find another solution for a student’s issues,” Planty says, adding that school districts also need to plan how to respond to bullying and of course, plan what to do in the case of a threat of imminent danger to the school.

How to weed out the actionable information and how to deal with false tips is another concern, Planty says: “You don’t want to use a response that is disproportionate to the potential harm.”

Building awareness of the importance of providing accurate and timely information can help cut down on false tips, and an effective education program for students, parents and teachers can help them recognize signs and know when to report.

“When I talk about awareness programs, I’m talking about things like an Awareness Day once a quarter or at least twice a year, announcements at the beginning of every school week, putting up posters and giving away trinkets. Once people become aware of the tip line, they will be more comfortable in using it and it can contribute to a safe climate for the school,” Planty says.

Showcasing those contributions through vehicles such as reports on the number and type of tips, along with sanitized case studies that show its impact, can help get decision makers to buy in to the need to commit to continuing use of the tip line and ensure sustainable funding sources.

“It’s also important to be aware that this is not the solution,” Planty says. “It can be an important part of a comprehensive school program, and a way of attempting to prevent threats from becoming reality, but you are never going to be able to stop every threat. For example, there can be an external actor that students or other school partners don’t know about. Schools still need to have proper target hardening and response plans in place as part of a comprehensive school safety plan.”

Download School Tip Line Toolkit: A Blueprint for Implementation and Sustainability here.

Article photo: David P. Smith/