5 Ways Schools Can Encourage Students to Report Threats

CISA and the U.S. Secret Service share new guidance on how K-12 schools can encourage student bystander reporting of threats and other concerning behaviors.

5 Ways Schools Can Encourage Students to Report Threats

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Targeted school violence is preventable when bystanders are able to report their concerns to professionals who can appropriately assess and respond to the situation, according to a 2021 study by the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) that examined 67 averted school attack plots. A separate 2019 study by NTAC examining school attacks that were carried out found that every assailant in their analysis exhibited concerning behaviors prior to their attacks. However, in two-thirds of these cases, bystanders observed at least one threatening communication or behavior by the attacker to which there was not a response. The report identifies reasons why bystanders chose not to report their concerns, which included fears of retaliation and the belief that other bystanders would take action.

When K-12 schools are made aware of a potential threat to school or student safety, they can effectively intervene with the appropriate resources and supports based on the issue. Reporting programs are a critical tool in preventing targeted school violence, but they are only effective if members of the school community utilize them. There are numerous factors that affect whether students, teachers, or staff come forward with concerns, including the type of reporting methods available, who is involved in responding to reports, and the overall school climate and environment.

To help K-12 schools improve and encourage reporting, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) School Safety Task Force and the USSS NTAC partnered to create “Improving School Safety Through Bystander Reporting: A Toolkit for Strengthening K-12 Reporting Programs.” The K-12 Bystander Reporting Toolkit provides simple, evidence-based strategies and guidance K-12 schools and districts can use to implement and enhance safety reporting programs and create a school environment where students are more willing and able to report their concerns. It was designed to prompt and guide school leaders in thinking about their own reporting programs and evaluate where they may be able to adjust or enhance existing procedures to strengthen bystander reporting based on their own needs and circumstances.

The toolkit incorporates information received from more than 30 interviews with school, district, community, and state-level stakeholders involved in K-12 school safety, along with best practices, research literature, and guidance from existing reporting programs to provide five key takeaways.

The following five strategies are promising practices that schools and school districts should consider implementing to bolster their student bystander reporting programs:

1. Encourage bystanders to report concerns for the wellness and safety of themselves or others.

There is no single solution when it comes to encouraging individuals to report concerning behaviors, In fact, options that work well in one school setting may not be suitable for other settings. Nevertheless, it is important to build awareness around reporting and the different ways to report information through continuous training and outreach efforts. Collectively, these efforts can help identify potential concerns early, enabling school professionals and community leaders to evaluate and respond with additional resources as necessary to support the wellness of individual students within the school community.

Data from existing reporting programs reveal that in addition to reporting threats of school violence, students also frequently report concerns involving bullying, drug use, self-harm, suicidal ideations, and depression, indicating a student is in need of resources or support. In all instances, bystander reporting is essential to ensure that school and community resources can reach the students who need them.

 2. Make reporting accessible and safe for the reporting community.

The design and implementation of a reporting program can shape the willingness of bystanders to report concerns about potential safety issues or student wellness. Programs that offer bystanders multiple options to share threats and other concerns can encourage reporting across different situations and help support individuals with different reporting preferences. These options may include reporting to a trusted adult, submitting a tip via phone, reporting via email or online form, or reporting via text or mobile application. Providing multiple options can help reduce barriers to reporting and improve accessibility for all students, including those who may be visually or hearing impaired, or have other disabilities.

Schools should also consider offering a mode for students and others to report threats and other school safety concerns anonymously or confidentially to reduce fears around reporting. Research finds that the fear of being ostracized, or experiencing other forms of retaliation, can be a significant barrier to reporting. When students view reporting as “snitching,” they are discouraged from coming forward with their concerns.

Anonymous and confidential reporting options can broaden the appeal of reporting, help ensure that an individual’s identity will not be revealed when they choose to come forward with information, and help prevent a student from being retaliated against for reporting. Finally, ensuring appropriate training for analysts who receive reports can also help bystanders feel a greater sense of trust when sharing issues of concern.

3. Follow-up on reports and be transparent about the actions taken in response to reported concerns.

Research shows that students are more likely to report threats and concerning behaviors when they believe that the school will take their information seriously and provide a timely response. To best establish a program’s credibility among the school community, timely and appropriate follow-up should be taken, whether the reports go through a formal reporting system or directly to a trusted adult. For all reporting methods, clear protocols for receiving reports, communicating with reporting individuals, and evaluating reports in a timely manner are necessary to increase the likelihood of an efficient response.

There are several ways for schools and districts to demonstrate consistent follow-up to reports in order to build credibility and trust with members of the school community. Opportunities include involving local school personnel, such as school administrators, in the intake or follow-up processes to demonstrate that the system is credible, and that school staff are engaged in the process. In all systems, consistent follow-through and communication help to ease student fears about reporting and build confidence that school staff takes student concerns seriously.

When applicable, two-way communication where individuals can interact directly with a trained analyst while remaining anonymous, or where users can be prompted to provide more specific details about their concerns, can further engage those making reports and support a timely response. Schools can encourage student reporting by providing clear and transparent information about their response to reports, such as sharing high-level information about response actions taken, to support both the perceived fairness and effectiveness of a reporting program.

 4. Make reporting a part of daily school life.

For reporting programs to be a useful tool for intervention and prevention in K-12 schools, students and other members of the community need to be aware of the importance of reporting, their role in reporting, what to report, and any resources that are available when it comes to reporting threats and other concerns. There are a variety of strategies schools and districts can adopt to reach students and the broader school community. These can include formal trainings, general marketing efforts, and initiatives that engage individual students, student clubs, groups, or teams.

Basic marketing is a quick and often cost-efficient way to promote a reporting program. Effective promotional tools used by schools across the country vary widely but often include materials such as posters that prominently display the name of the reporting program and ways to report, including associated phone numbers, websites, or a QR code linking to the associated mobile application. These details can be imprinted on pens, water bottles, or lanyards and then distributed to students and teachers, or included on the back of staff and student identification cards to help make reporting programs easily recognizable and available.

Short training videos and other presentations delivered throughout the school year can also remind students about the resources available to them and of the importance of reporting for improving student wellness and school safety. Additionally, schools and districts can send information about their reporting program via school-wide emails or newsletters, and post details prominently on their websites and social media channels.

 5. Create a positive climate where reporting is valued and respected.

Establishing rapport between students and school staff is critical to building a trusting environment where students feel included and comfortable coming forward with information. Research demonstrates that the level of trust between students and school staff influences the willingness of students to report threats, and in general, individuals feel more empowered to report when they believe they are part of a larger community.

Schools have higher reporting rates where students have strong relationships with teachers  and perceive their teachers as able to help them. Positive relationships accrue through repeated student-teacher interactions, familiarity between students and teachers, and teachers making themselves accessible to students. These efforts should extend to fostering trusting relationships between student populations and school-based law enforcement or school resource officers if they are present on campus. School and district leaders should assess relationships within their schools and other aspects of school climate, such as safety, sense of belonging, and perceptions of respect vs. inequitable or disciplinary actions, to identify potential areas in need of improvement. A positive school climate where people of all backgrounds feel safe, important, and valued can encourage students and others to make reports.

Bystander Reporting and the School Safety System

Bystander reporting is critical to the prevention of targeted violence in K-12 schools and, more broadly, the social and emotional wellness of K-12 students. Successful reporting is achieved through strong cultures of trust, supportive relationships between students and school staff, and the integration of support systems, such as school safety reporting programs, that reduce barriers to reporting for students and other members of the community.

The K-12 Bystander Reporting Toolkit offers evidence-based strategies to address one piece of the overall school safety system – the willingness of bystanders to report behaviors of concern. For schools or districts with well-established reporting systems, these strategies can be applied to increase the potential for success. For schools with less-established reporting programs or without a current program in place, this resource is just one of a larger set of tools to draw on while designing a new reporting program or strengthening existing capabilities.

CISA and the USSS share a joint mission to improve school safety. The K-12 Bystander Reporting Toolkit was developed to support that mission by offering actionable guidance and considerations that can be used to inform safety planning for the range of K-12 schools across the U.S. With this toolkit, school and district leaders can create tailored, customized approaches that meet the needs of their individual communities.

To learn more and access the K-12 Bystander Reporting Toolkit, visit www.cisa.gov/resources-tools/resources/k-12-bystander-reporting-toolkit and www.secretservice.gov/ntac.

Wade Buckland is a supervisory social science research specialist for the United States Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center.

Ryan Streeter is the product and training program manager for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency School Safety Task Force.

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can text TALK to 741741 or initiate an online chat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/. You can also call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. Additional resources can also be found at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

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