Advertisement

Anonymous tips work to prevent school shootings and suicides, new study finds

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, help is available. Dial or text 988 or visit 988lifeline.org for free and confidential support.

Anonymous reporting systems used by schoolchildren to report concerning behavior among their peers has resulted in the prevention of numerous instances of suicide, school violence and planned attacks, according to a study published Wednesday.

Researchers studied data from the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, operated by the violence prevention group Sandy Hook Promise, which includes an around-the-clock crisis center staffed by trained counselors who review tips submitted by phone and online and notify appropriate responders. The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, was funded by the Chaiken Foundation and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and its lead authors were affiliated with the University of Michigan and Sandy Hook Promise.

In a review of tips submitted from 2019 to 2023 in one southeastern state, the researchers found that the anonymous reporting system “enabled 1,039 confirmed mental health interventions; 109 ‘saves’ where clear evidence of imminent suicide crisis was present and averted; prevented 38 acts of school-violence including weapons recovered on school grounds; and averted 6 confirmed planned school attacks,” according to the report.

Nearly 10% of tips received were related to firearms, which researchers noted “are the leading cause of death among children and adolescents,” an CNN has reported based on data from the CDC.

The firearm-related tips received by the anonymous reporting system included potential school shootings, observing someone in possession of a weapon, bullying, and harassment or intimidation, according to the study.

“The urgency of firearm-related tips highlights the need to educate families on firearm violence prevention and ensure support and response protocols for school systems,” the authors said while noting the importance of greater awareness of anonymous reporting programs by public health and medical professionals.

Public safety experts have long called for increased mechanisms for students to report potential threats confidentially in hopes of saving lives.

“You have to educate the student body that this is not an effort to rat out your fellow student or get a fellow student in trouble,” former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, who has studied school shootings for more than 20 years, previously told CNN. “Educate the students and the faculty to what the red-flag behaviors are … and make it so that students can call in on a confidential line.”

“Anonymous and confidential reporting options can broaden the appeal of reporting, especially for students who are concerned about being identified and ostracized by their peers after reporting,” according to the US Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, which studies violence in schools. “Research finds that the fear of being ostracized, or experiencing other forms of retaliation, is a significant barrier to reporting.”

Educators such as Dr. Robert Taylor, superintendent of Wake County Public School System in North Carolina, who has touted the importance of the Sandy Hook Promise program, agree that anonymity helps remove barriers.

“We see students are afraid to come forward and tell teachers and administrators what they know is happening in the school, [but] when you have something like the Say Something Anonymous System, it allows them to report at any time – 24 hours a day – danger they may see,” Taylor said.

The Sandy Hook Promise’s Say Something Anonymous Reporting System serves more than 5 million students in sixth through 12th grade in 23 states, according to the study. Other areas use the StopIt anonymous reporting system or unique apps for students in a particular school district for students to report threats.

While the topic of gun control can be politically polarizing in the US, improving mechanisms for anonymous reporting of threats by students has been met with bipartisan support.

After the 2021 fatal shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, a task force of Republican and Democratic legislators proposed several safety measures, including increasing resources for the state’s OK2SAY platform for reporting confidential tips.

“It shouldn’t be partisan, by any means,” said state Rep. Luke Meerman, a Republican, told CNN. Meerman served on the school safety task force and said the goal was to try to identify unreported warning signs that often surface only after gun violence incidents.

“You often find out somebody knew something, unfortunately, in many of these cases,” he said, adding “our hope is that OK2SAY is that vehicle that can be used to let somebody know.”

In addition to creating awareness of such reporting programs, some lawmakers want them mandatory in schools.

California state Sen. Scott Wilk, a Republican, filed legislation last year dubbed the Saugus Strong Act, a reference to the 2019 incident at Saugus High School near Los Angeles in which an armed 16-year-old killed two students and injured three others.

The bill would require state education agencies to implement systems for students, parents and concerned community members to report threatening behavior anonymously.

“It is way worse than anything my generation had to go through,” Wilk said of the myriad struggles facing young people. “Having this resource available to students and their families could very well mean the difference between life and death.”

CNN’s Holly Yan and Annette Choi contributed to this report.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com