A National Institute of Justice report on school safety has identified promising practices in the use of tip lines.

The survey was conducted to determine the prevalence of tip lines for school safety, types of schools that are more likely to use tip lines, ways in which tip lines are designed and implemented, challenges of operating tip lines, and perceived effectiveness of tip lines. 

According to the study, more than half (51%) of public middle and high schools in the United States had a tip line in operation at the conclusion of the 2018–2019 school year.

Most tip lines are relatively new, the study says. About 60% of schools with tip lines reported that the tip lines had been in operation for 3 years or less. However, some schools have had tip lines in place for quite some time; 15% of schools have had a tip line in operation for 10 or more years.

Tip lines are not necessarily designed just to alert school safety personnel of threats of violent acts, the report notes. In fact, they are a tool to identify many types of problems, such as physical threats and attacks, bullying and harassment, drug use, self-harm, suicidal ideation, sexting, and weapon carrying, among many others. This variety is illustrated in the figure below, which depicts tip types from Oregon’s SafeOregon state tip line program.

The types of public middle and high schools that are generally more likely to have a tip line in operation include:

  • schools with higher student enrollment,
  • schools located in suburbs rather than in cities or rural areas, and
  • low-poverty schools.

Schools without a tip line were asked why they were not using one. The most common reasons were:

  • a tip line is perceived to be unnecessary because the school has other ways to share information about potential threats and school safety (43%),
  • the school has an insufficient budget to implement and operate a tip line (26%), and
  • the school has insufficient staff to implement and operate a tip line (21%).

Legal liability concerns (9%) and concerns about the technical expertise required (10%) were the least common reasons for not having a tip line.

Among the schools using tip lines, according to the study, 37% of the systems had been developed in house and 43% had been purchased from a vendor or contractor. Other options for obtaining tip lines included getting them free of charge or from a state agency, local agency, or community organization.

The most common level at which tip lines are administered is the district level (39%), although state-and school-level models are also common.

Schools reported several ways in which tips can be submitted, including via a Web site, phone, e-mail, text, or an app, the study notes. Many tip lines are set up to accept a variety of media, such as screen shots, photos, social media posts, and videos.

One of the defining features of tip lines is that they offer a confidential or anonymous way for students, parents, and others to report information. The majority of tip lines are described to students as anonymous or as anonymous and confidential.

According to the study, regardless of how they are described to students, most tip lines are set up to offer anonymity. More than three-quarters (77%) allow the reporter to submit a tip without providing personal information. At the same time, recognizing that sometimes additional information is necessary, most tip lines (61%) allow the reporters to choose whether they can be recontacted if needed, which would entail the provision of some contact information.

The study also reported how the tip lines are monitored. More than half of tip lines are staffed or monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, such that a staff member receives calls, texts, or other entries in real time. However, a sizable percentage of respondents were unsure about how their tip line was staffed.

The stakeholder who receives a tip upon initial submission (for triage or forwarding to others) is most commonly a school staff member. This was the case for more than one-third of schools. About a quarter of schools said that a call center, contractor, or vendor receives the tips initially.

Regarding tip line policy, about a quarter (24%) of respondents reported that they had a formal, written policy detailing the process for triaging tips (i.e., prioritizing or categorizing them based on level of urgency) when the tips first get submitted. Slightly more (35%) said that they had a formal, written policy detailing the process for acting on tips when their school gets them. Many tip lines have built-in procedures to ensure that a tip is not missed. These include distribution of tips to multiple staff trained to respond (51%); a confirmation process to acknowledge that a tip has been received (41%); a communication tree such that if the first individual is not reached, a second is contacted (17%); and other procedures (4%).

The report notes, "The findings of this study show that efforts are needed to involve more stakeholders as active partners in tip line operation, particularly engaging students as active tip line users, involving parents, and developing stronger partnerships with mental health providers. These partnerships could help raise students’ awareness of their schools’ tip lines, encourage the submission of tips, and ensure the adequate provision of mental and behavioral health referrals and services to students in need. Given the challenges to operating tip lines that respondents identified, more intensive efforts are also needed to raise student awareness about tip lines, educate students about the types of issues that tip lines are designed to deal with, and train students on how to submit tips with sufficient information for their schools to act on."

"Encouragingly, tip lines were largely perceived as effective by most school principals (or other school safety personnel who completed the survey," the report says. "Survey respondents said that tip lines had improved their schools’ ability to respond to a diverse set of issues, including self-harm, drug use, and bullying, in addition to safety concerns. Further research is needed to understand whether implementation of a tip line is associated with changes in school safety and disciplinary outcomes (based on school-level data) and to identify characteristics of tip lines that are associated with better outcomes."