Officials: Anonymous online TIPS system helping to to keep Fairfield students safe
FAIRFIELD — Public schools adopted an anonymous online incident reporting system early last year that has helped school leadership get more information on concerns of possible self-harm, bullying, cheating and other concerns.
From July 1, 2015, to June 30, the district received nearly 300 tips, providing sometimes vital information on top of what was already being gathered from open reports. The number of reports through TIPS slightly rose compared to the year before, said Andrea Leonardi, the district’s director of special education and pupil services.
Twenty-one of the 299 reports were about acts of kindness, an option that lets students or community members let the district know about a positive moment or someone that went out of their way to do something good. As school climate coordinator, Leonardi worked with the school climate committee to launch TIPS and receives every anonymous report. For each type of incident at each school, particular personnel are notified as part of a designated response team, which includes town police for potentially criminal situations.
The district has seen anonymous reports that a student might be having suicidal thoughts through TIPS, and those cases have allowed a quicker response to get those students help, Leonardi said. Five tips in the self-harm/injury category and two in the threats of self-harm/suicidal thoughts category were submitted from the July 1, 2015, to June 30.
Number of incidents reported,
Possession of illegal substances (drugs/alcohol), 22
Acts of kindness, 21
Adult misconduct, 20
Uncomfortable interaction, 18
Safety concern, 17
Sale/distribution of illegal substances, 10
Sexual assault, 5
Substance use, 5
Cheating/academic dishonesty, 4
Possession of weapons, 3
Threat of violence toward others, 2
Threats of self-harm/suicidal thoughts, 2
Suspected abuse/sexual abuse/neglect, 1
“I think those things give us an opportunity to get to a child before a crisis ensues,” she said. “When the depression is at its beginning, rather than when it’s at a critical point.”
Being able to intervene in those situations early may just have saved some lives, Leonardi said.
TIPS saw 79 reports of bullying, harassment or intimidation last year, the largest number of reports for a single category of the 299 submitted, helping shine light on bullying situations which Leonardi said happen, metaphorically, in the dark.
“Kids think all adults see everything, and often bullying happens when adults aren’t watching or listening,” she said. TIPS is “giving us a chance to better understand and to address those kinds of things and protect kids before bullying starts to dramatically impact them and their self-esteem and depression and all those things that can come with it.”
Of the 299 reports, some resulted in disciplinary action, but others allowed administrators and teachers to shift attention to a particular area they can monitor for the future. For example, with a report of a drug sale, cameras and attention could be reorganized to a location given in a report, even if the report gave no names or details. Certain TIPS report categories will automatically notify town police, along with school district officials and personnel. Reports of potential criminal situations, such as sexual assault, weapons possession or drug sales, will go right to Lt. Edward Weihe, commander of the Fairfield police School Safety Division.
Weihe said he is alerted about a TIPS report about once or twice a month during the school year, and most reports through the system are not criminal. Being looped in on the anonymous or discreet reports is just another element of police safety involvement at town schools, he said. “I think it has helped really well with school climate issues,” Weihe said of the program. “I think there are a lot of children — and maybe even parents — who want to come forward with information, and there’s always that worry about being identified as the person who reported.”
No TIPS reports have resulted in an arrest. The majority of School Safety Division investigations are triggered by open reports or started by officers.
Fairfield Warde High School Headmaster David Ebling said report investigations can vary in their results, from ensuring teachers and other staff are aware of a situation to disciplinary action. The downside of the program, he said, is school staff cannot take direct action as much as they would like, since they cannot follow up with anonymous reporters.
“Our goal in our school is to make every student feel comfortable and respected every day when they come into our building, so if this is just another way to make that happen, then it’s valuable,” Ebling said.
Large buttons that read “report incident” on all individual schools’ and the district’s websites link to the reporting form.
The district began using TIPS in March 2015. Where anonymous reporting through slips of paper — which the district tried — fell short was a report slipped under someone’s door could sit overnight or over the weekend, according to Leonardi. Using an online program, every report is in her email right away.
TIPS is a product of Awareity, a private company that creates products to help prevent safety crises. The school climate committee chose the platform because it costs the district about $6,000 per year, but is highly effective. “When I say cost-effective, if we can help one of these incidents to either be rectified or not happen, imagine,” Leonardi said. “Those are pennies, really.”
Rick Shaw, Awareity founder and CEO, said Fairfield is among early users of the company’s TIPS system, which was released five and a half years ago. After looking at post-reports from suicides, bullying lawsuits, sexual assault cases and similar issues happening at schools, Awareity saw a pattern of people who knew some information before the incidents occurred.
“Now they can connect the dots, when they didn’t have the dots before,” he said.
Fairfield Ludlowe High School Headmaster Greg Hatzis said it took some time for students to see TIPS as a resource, with hesitation at first about whether they could truly remain anonymous. Early on, he said, reports were submitted for all the right reasons. But as more students have become aware of TIPS, the high school began to see more false reports or use of the platform for venting.
“It’s still very valuable for the tips that we get that lead us to know some more about things that are going on,” Hatzis said. “But there are sometimes some hours spent doing some research or digging in or investigating a certain claim that we find out is not so true.”
Hatzis estimated 20 percent of reports give the school important information about a dangerous situation or student that may be in or nearing a crisis.
Ebling said he has rarely seen TIPS abused, though the high school did have a case of one student false reporting another to try to get the other student in trouble.
Fairfield Education Association President Bob Smoler said TIPS works well when used properly. As with any anonymous forum, the reporting mechanism can be misused and affect people’s lives, he said. Smoler believes the benefits of TIPS outweigh the costs, but concerns remain. In his experiences with TIPS, some reports have had positive, helpful outcomes, while others have led down more difficult paths.
One part of the effort
Leonardi still encourages community members to report “the old-fashioned way” and come in and talk to people they trust at the schools. The number of reports that come in that way have not changed, while TIPS catches information that would otherwise fall through the cracks. TIPS has not reduced in-person reporting. TIPS “tells the students that we listen,” Hatzis said.