I have written in the past on anonymous reporting systems in schools, and I strongly advocate for them whenever I have the opportunity to speak to educators on how they should prevent cyberbullying. Based on your own observations, I am sure you’d agree with me that youth are way more comfortable texting/typing – especially when it relates to giving emotionally-laden statements or sharing stories of a sensitive or delicate nature to an adult (such as a teacher, counselor, or administrator). Not only do these systems cater to the preferred method of communication for kids, they also offer confidentiality to the person providing the report. Furthermore, they help to empower youth to be agents of change and step up for themselves or for others who are being victimized. Finally, they allow for real-time reporting, can alert you to minor situations before they become major, and can provide a tangible “paper trail” of documentation for each and every issue that is made known.
Before I continue, I want to make a very important point. Schools sometimes are hesitant to set up these systems because they are concerned about false positives. They assume that students are just going to screw around with the system and make all sorts of ridiculous, juvenile reports and waste everyone’s time. They even wonder if some students will attempt to bully others by reporting them as an aggressor. Those are legitimate possibilities, but they are largely unfounded. Every school we have worked with that has implemented these systems has said that yes, they might receive a few insincere reports a year, but the vast majority are legitimate and provide extremely helpful information to consider. The bottom line is that using these systems allow students to be the eyes and ears out there in the school community to keep educators in the loop about issues they really must know. And getting in front of these issues – or incendiary sparks, if you will pardon the metaphor – can definitely keep them from flaring up into a blazing inferno of sorts.
Second, whenever I spend time with youth at schools, I am reminded that they honestly do want to speak up. They do. The problem is, they just don’t know how to do so safely and in a way that feels comfortable for them. And, they are concerned about the possible fallout from doing so (being found out, labeled a tattletale, targeted with retaliation). It is up to schools, then, to create and provide safe mechanisms for reporting, and to have policies and procedures in place to reduce as much as possible the potential for that fallout.
There are a number of commercial services to which school districts can subscribe that provide this functionality. Some are fantastic, well-developed, and even provide more advanced features – and therefore are worth checking out. However, since many school districts cannot afford to subscribe to a commercial service, or may want a solution with a smaller footprint, I wanted to share how they might provide a similar tool to their school community through Google Voice at no cost. I believe it does a great job of what we would want it to do: to field private reports from the student body to alert the school about situations they should investigate.
How it Works
The system is built around a main phone number created through a new Google Voice account and then shared with the entire student body as a tipline or report-line. The system then disseminates the student voicemails (rare) and texts (frequent) to school personnel such as the assistant principal, the counselor, or the school police officer for investigation and follow-up. Voicemails can be sent as a sound file or even transcribed into text, and then emailed to a specified address. Texts can be forwarded to a specific email (or multiple emails) as well.
All point people (administrators, law enforcement, etc.) who want to access the tip line will have to download the Google Voice App to their phone or tablet (Android or iOS devices). Once the app is downloaded, they must configure it congruent with the settings of the how the Google Voice tipline was set up (e.g., input the same login and password used to create the tipline in the first place). Once the app is set up, that point person can respond to texts and calls from tipsters from within the app, and only the tipline number will be displayed on outgoing texts (as opposed to the point person’s actual phone number). This is critical, because it maintains the confidentiality and privacy of the administrators and law enforcement who respond to tips from their personal devices.
Who Responds to Tips?
Typically, each school should assign a point person to deal with the reports as they come in. Specific responses can be based on offense seriousness; most are addressable by intervention from an administrator or counselor. However, if the matter is more serious (e.g., involves threats, sexually-explicit pictures of minors, coercion or blackmail, or viable evidence of other criminal activity) the school police officer or local law enforcement department should be notified to intercede.
What Should Be Reported?
In discussing the reporting system with students, it should be stressed that no issue is too small. We want students to use them extensively and to let the school know if there is anything amiss that should be investigated. Of course, schools should clearly convey that that actual emergencies should be reported to the police via 911 or another method. While the purpose here is to encourage its use when bullying or cyberbullying is involved, schools should welcome kids keeping them in the loop whenever they notice, witness, or otherwise become aware of:
- Abuse at home (or elsewhere)
- Concerns about a fellow student (self-harm, suicidal ideation, etc.)
- Criminal activity (drugs, extortion, theft, vandalism, rape, etc.)
- General threats to campus safety or the campus environment
Is the System Truly Anonymous?
In a word, no. Anyone who calls or texts the tipline will have their phone number recorded. Typically, though, if the tipster does not want to reveal their identity, it is difficult to know who is behind the tip because the school doesn’t readily have a database of student cell phone numbers to cross-reference (schools typically only have a database of the parent/guardian contact information on file for each student). Googling the phone number also rarely reveals any identifying information unless the student has posted his or her cell phone across the Web and publicly-accessible social media pages. As such, there is definitely a strong measure of privacy in the system.
Other points to remember
- When responding to students tips via text, be sure to sign your name. Remember, they will not be able to see your actual phone number but instead will see the phone number of the tipline.
- The school, when responding, should always thank the tipster for the information, commend them for caring about the safety of their community, and remind him or her that it will be kept confidential.
- Because of FERPA rules, schools should not voluntarily disclose information about certain students in their text interactions with the tipster (e.g., names, personal histories, etc.).
- Always keep all interactions formal and professional, as they may serve as documentation in a case file or even court proceedings in the future. A school’s point person should never be casual in their texts through this system, even though it is a medium with which we all are extremely comfortable.
- There can also be follow-up dialogue via text in this process, as the school may request more information from the tipster or the tipster desire to share more information with the school.
- Students should be reminded that the system should not be abused. They should know this anyway, but sometimes it still needs to be articulated.
In sum, we strongly believe that every school should have a system in place that allows students who experience or observe bullying or cyberbullying (or any inappropriate behavior) to report it in as confidential a manner as possible. It seems obvious that we should be using mediums that youth already prefer. In addition, being able to broach the subject without being forced to reveal one’s identity or do it face-to-face may prove valuable in alerting faculty and staff to harmful student experiences, and help promote an informed response to bring positive change. Just make sure that students know about the system (use posters, messaging strategies, and other creative ways to get it out there!) and try to overcome any qualms they might have about using it.
Finally, please remember that if you decide to provide such a resource to your school community, every complaint should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Since the use of this system does provide the paper trail I talked about earlier, it’s best to make sure you’ve done your due diligence with all reports to avoid any claims of liability or negligence. If the school responds promptly, and if it is a good experience for the student providing the tip, he or she will let other students know – and the system will be used more. Even better, the student body will be reminded that the school truly cares about them and is implementing progressive measures to make that clear.
Here is our step-by-step guide in PDF format to walk educators through the process of setting up a Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting System with Google Voice.