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How an anonymous tip line is combatting gun violence in schools

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Schools across the country are using anonymous tip lines to prevent gun violence, and now a new study in the journal Pediatrics finds that the line in one state is successfully catching these kinds of threats. Doing so is critical. Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children and teens in the U.S. That has been the case since 2020, when guns surpassed car accidents. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has this report, which does mention suicide.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: This particular tip line is being used across 23 states. It's called the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System. It trains students and school staff to identify signs of potential violence and self-harm, and then students can anonymously report a potential threat through an app, a phone number or a website. Elyse Thulin is at the University of Michigan's Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention.

ELYSE THULIN: Youth have a particularly important viewpoint. They often know much more than the adults do about what's going on in their, you know, relationships and their school communities.

CHATTERJEE: So they're often the first to notice a concerning behavior or potential threat. Thulin says, when a student reports something to the tip line, it goes to the Sandy Hook Crisis Center, where crisis counselors try to engage with the tipster.

THULIN: These individuals are trained to live-triage the tips. One very cool thing about the Say Something Anonymous Report System is that teens can actually have a conversation with a crisis center counselor live.

CHATTERJEE: The counselors gauge the nature of the threat and loop in school staff. If the threat seems urgent, then they also connect with local law enforcement. Thulin and her colleagues analyzed the system in one southeastern state, North Carolina, which has the tip line in all school districts.

THULIN: We collected data from tips that had been submitted over four academic years.

CHATTERJEE: That's 2019 to 2023. There were more than 18,000 tips submitted to the Anonymous Reporting System, or ARS.

THULIN: What we found is that 10% of tips contained reference to a firearm. So youth are turning to ARS to submit information about what can be very highly risky situations.

CHATTERJEE: While these gun-related tips also included concerns about bullying, interpersonal conflicts and suicide, 38% were about potential school shootings. Nearly a quarter were about seeing or knowing of a weapon. And, Thulin says...

THULIN: We found that, 50% of the time - that tips containing a firearm were requiring that urgent response.

CHATTERJEE: A separate analysis of the data by the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation shows that the tips and interventions that followed prevented six planned school shootings and 38 instances of school violence over the four years. The tips also flagged more than 100 cases where a suicide crisis was averted. Beverly Kingston studies violence prevention at the University of Colorado Boulder. She wasn't involved in the new study and says its findings are heartening.

BEVERLY KINGSTON: It demonstrates that anonymous reporting systems can be a useful and a practical strategy to address gun violence and other concerning behaviors.

CHATTERJEE: She says these findings are timely, given that gun violence is now a major public health problem.

KINGSTON: In a country that has the level of firearms that we have, we need to have anonymous reporting.

CHATTERJEE: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "MEMORY OF... (US) (FEAT. ESTELLE AND PETE ROCK)")

SUMMERS: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Just those three digits - 988.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "MEMORY OF... (US) (FEAT. ESTELLE AND PETE ROCK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.
Gus Contreras
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