Telling on people isn't popular. But when it comes to preventing violence at school, kids who know something about a plot are often the first line of defense. Anonymous hot lines and e-mail systems are gaining momentum in the push to encourage students to tell an adult.
"Schools have been trying to do a good job of saying, 'We're going to break the code of silence,' " says William Lassiter, manager of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C. Over the past five years, he says, a hot line in North Carolina has resulted in removing at least four guns from schools.
Anonymity is an important tool, but these systems won't work if adults don't consistently follow through after students speak up, whether it's about seeing a weapon, being bullied, or feeling depressed.
"Kids told us they could remember the exact time in their life when they went to talk to a teacher or somebody [about a problem], and the adult just told them, 'Buck up.... That's just a part of growing up.' [When] that trust is broken, it's hard for that kid to ask for help again," Mr. Lassiter says.
One reporting system known as AnComm taps into students' penchant for computer technology. From any Internet browser, kids can select and anonymously e-mail trained volunteer teachers, administrators, or counselors at their school. Students use an ID number and password to sign in, and are told up front that AnComm will reveal their name to school officials only if they appear to pose a serious threat to themselves or others.
"We build a certain level of trust with the children because we are a third party," says Carter Myers, president of AnComm Inc., based in Oxford, Miss., and Houston. "If it's a district tool or a school tool, they always feel like there's a man behind the curtain."
AnComm is currently used in 36 middle and high schools in Mississippi, Texas, California, and Wyoming, and has been credited with preventing at least four suicides.
Student task forces introduce the system to their peers. At Manor High School in Texas, student leaders perused the website last year and found they could use it to make up a fun poll – "Who will be chosen prom Queen and King?" – to lure in their classmates to vote. Once students were familiar with AnComm, "we promoted using it to help other people out," says Kara Sherman, now a 10th-grader. One point they particularly pushed: Students should report through AnComm if friends indicate they are contemplating suicide.
A school culture can still take a long time to change, however. "Depending who you talk to," Kara says, "some students will say [AnComm] is like telling or being a little snitch. But others think it's a really good opportunity to ... say what you have to say without being scared that someone's going to get mad at you."
School staff say they appreciate the communication students initiate through the e-mails. Schools also get a report showing how many e-mails come in regarding such subjects as teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, and bullying. The issue of "cutting" – a form of self-injury practiced by some youths – wasn't even on the radar screen for Mark Diaz, superintendent of the Manor Independent School District, until he saw distressed messages from students using AnComm. "I was surprised at the willingness of students to open up to a machine rather than to our counselors," he says.
After an e-mail dialogue, some students seek face-to-face help. But others find resolution to their problems without ever identifying themselves to school officials. Alfredo Loredo, principal of Cesar Chavez Middle School in Waco, Texas, recalls one disgruntled student who wrote to him a litany of complaints. After e-mail exchanges over four months, the student thanked him. All the bitterness was gone, Mr. Loredo says.
One resource available nationwide is a hot line for anonymously reporting weapon-related threats (866-SPEAK-UP). Set up in 2002 by Pax, a nonprofit in New York, the SPEAK UP hot line is promoted with national ads and lesson plans in more than 1,000 educational venues.
Calls in English and Spanish are answered 24/7. Any information about a threat of violence is immediately reported to the school and the local police. Other types of calls are steered to more appropriate hot lines.
So far SPEAK UP has received 15,000 calls. Anecdotes from school officials indicate that hundreds of weapons have been confiscated and serious threats have been averted, says Pax cofounder and CEO Daniel Gross, who shared information at the school-violence prevention summit called for by the White House last week.
"SPEAK UP wouldn't have necessarily prevented all the tragedies we hear about," he says, but a landmark federal study in 2002 found that in 81 percent of school shootings by students, attackers had told someone about their plans beforehand – almost always a peer.
• SPEAK UP is an anonymous 24-hour hot line: 866-773-2587. Also see www.paxusa.org
• For information about AnComm Inc., call 866-926-2666 or go to www.ancomm.com
• National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center: 866-723-3968 (8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time, Mon.–Fri.), or go to www.safeyouth.org