Largely because of the tragic mass shootings US schools have endured before and since the particularly egregious one at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, the number of local and state school safety tiplines has grown. The one in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 and the response of the student activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, galvanized calls for more gun control as well as school safety measures.
“Tiplines, which are relatively inexpensive and don’t affect gun control laws, are one of the few policy responses to mass shootings that Republicans and Democrats can agree on,” according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trust.
The US’s school safety tiplines
As of 2019, 14 states had statewide school safety tiplines (see Education Week for details). Most of these are closely tied to law enforcement, probably because of law enforcement’s reliable emergency response protocols and partly because of longstanding cooperation between schools and police departments in US society, with police officers (school resource officers) working full-time in 42% of the country’s public schools.
More than half of US schools now use a tipline of some sort for students to report safety threats, RTI International reported in February 2020. Schools’ tiplines take various forms such as apps, websites and phone hotlines. If not schools’ own apps or services, many tiplines are run by state governments, particularly the offices of state attorneys general. Where these address bullying, the work of these tiplines may also cover Internet-based harassment and bullying, though we have learned that – when run by law enforcement – school safety tiplines typically send Internet-based cases back to the schools to handle, partly because they rarely represent an urgent threat to students’ physical safety or a crime.
Physical to psychological safety
All that was pre-pandemic. But even before Covid-19 hit the US, the school safety tiplines were increasingly being used for a different purpose than what they were created for: self-harm rather than violence toward others. “Reports to school safety tiplines of students self-harming or feeling suicidal have far outpaced the number of threats against schools,” NBC News reported in February 2020.
Billions of dollars have been poured into protecting schools against shootings, when the numbers point to the need for a different kind of care. “Five people were killed in a school shooting in 2017, and 30 in 2018,” according to NBC, while “the number of children who took their own lives nearly doubled from 2007 to 2017, when there were 3,008 suicides among people ages 10 to 19” (figures from the Centers for Disease Control), and the number of teens who experienced depression increased 59% between 2007 and 2017 (a 66% increase among girls and 44% among boys), according to Pew Research.
Suicide prevention: The greater need
School tiplines are now more about preventing suicide, and – if associated with law enforcement – they have the protocols needed for rapid response to this kind of emergency as well as active shooter situations.
Unless behavior in social media threatens school violence or leads to a school fight or other physical victimization on school campuses, it rarely rises to the level of an emergency. An Internet or social media helpline is not an emergency hotline. Peer harassment and bullying in social media is generally a form of social-emotional victimization, including cyberbullying, we found in the research of an Internet safety national task force in the last decade (for more data on bullying and cyberbullying in the US, see this on a national report and/or click to the Cyberbullying Research Center).
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic’s massive impact on US schools and students’ ability to keep learning, concerns about students’ mental health have obviously eclipsed concerns about both school safety and everybody has become more dependent on tech and the Internet than ever – for school, work, entertainment and social connection.
Internet helplines’ unique expertise
Over the past 15+ years of social media, we have learned that online safety is largely social-emotional safety and wellbeing (see this national report). At the end of the last decade, a US national task force found that harassment and bullying are the most common risk young Americans face online, and they represent psychological, not physical harm. So an Internet helpline needs access to mental healthcare professionals as it helps address harmful online content and behavior.
Given the global scale of the social media platforms and the massive demand on their human and algorithmic moderation systems, the need for Internet helplines – the context they have on individual cases and their understanding of the platforms – is greater than ever, whether or not kids are in school.
Along with a police-run tipline, Crisis Text Line or Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an Internet or social media helpline is one part of the solution mix. Just as crisis tiplines and specialty hotlines (e.g., LoveIsRespect.org for dating abuse or the LGBT National Hotline) have their specialized expertise, an Internet helpline ideally has expertise not only in Internet and digital media content and report, but also child and adolescent development, platforms’ Terms of Service and direct access to the Internet companies for deletion of content concerning minors which violates platforms’ Terms. At least in the US, law enforcement has its own direct access to the platforms, but that access relates to illegal and criminal content, not child and adolescent behavior.
- For more takeaways from piloting an Internet helpline, click here.
- For schools looking for advice on good tipline practices, see “School Tip Line Toolkit: A Blueprint for Implementation and Sustainability,” first presented at the National Summit on School Safety Tip Lines, hosted by the Oregon State Police in June 2018 (review and input from Safe2Tell Colorado, Kentucky’s S.T.O.P. Tipline, Michigan’s OK2SAY, Nevada’s SafeVoice, Safe Oregon, SafeUT and Safe2Tell Wyoming. Authors: Planty, M., Banks, D., Cutbush, S., & Sherwood, J., RTI International, Research Triangle Park, N.C.