Bully box, meet the Smartphone

New technologies transform anonymous reporting

08/21/2013  |  By PAUL LANGHORST
School Security
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Increasingly, new laws and court rulings hold that educators may be responsible for incidents that impact school life but that happen outside of school hours. Today’s educators must address challenging issues such as bullying, cyberbullying, violence, assault, and more. Anonymous reporting programs are increasingly being implemented to help solve these problems by creating more visibility on what may be happening outside of the school day.

Anonymous reporting programs have been around for years, but they have traditionally been implemented in ineffective ways. Take the “bully box,” for instance.  In school hallways across the nation, a decorated old Kleenex box often serves as a school’s anonymous reporting system. These bully boxes allow students to anonymously slip in a note about bullying incidents or other concerns. While well intended, the reality is that students don’t want to risk being seen dropping a note into the box, and thus the bully box is seldom utilized.

The bully box and other similar methods of anonymous reporting are antiquated in light of how today’s youth communicate. According to a 2011 survey by Verizon, the average age at which a child receives their first phone is 11.6 years, and according to data from the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of teens now have a personal cell or mobile device. Fortunately, the rise in mobile communications among young people has given rise to new and vibrant forms of anonymous reporting that are more effective than the traditional bully box.

The New Era of Anonymous Reporting 

The ability of a school leader to receive timely, detailed, anonymous reports directly from a student is now upon us.  The combination of mobile technology, coupled with web, e-mail, and texting service and blended together with specialized programming, has created a new era of anonymous reporting. Educators across the country are being introduced to new text and web-based anonymous reporting programs such as the CyberBully Hotline, U-Tip, Sprigeo and others.  While these systems all vary in their offerings and processes, at their core they meet students where they live — on their mobile devices — and enable them to correspond anonymously and directly with school officials.

Why Anonymous Reporting is Needed

Educators cannot address bullying or safety threats if they don’t know about them and, sadly, they’re often in the dark about such issues.

The work of famed researcher Dr. Dan Olweus has shown why this is the case. Over his lifetime of work studying bullying and developing prevention strategies, Dr. Olweus found that the underlying cause of failure to report was fear:  fear of confrontation, fear of being labeled a “rat” or a “snitch,” fear of retaliation, and fear of speaking to an adult.

It’s not a surprise, then, that we see studies which prove that students keep quiet about bullying.  For example, one recent study found that 64 percent of students who are bullied tell no one, and just 36 percent of those bullied told a teacher or an adult (Petrosino, 2010).

That’s why many educators are now embracing the presence of cell phones on campus after years of trying to fight them. Device use policies are changing to allow mobile-based anonymous reporting programs to take shape and help fight back against bullying in schools.

A well-run, text-based anonymous reporting system can take the fear and stigma out of making a report. Especially powerful in the hands of bystanders and witnesses, an anonymous reporting system can empower students to report what they see or hear.

Leveraging Student Mobile Devices: A Case Study

The combination of student-carried mobile devices and a text-based anonymous reporting system can be very powerful. One district that has seen this firsthand is the Warren County R-III School District in Warren County, Missouri.

After 60 students at Warren County’s Black Hawk Middle School were disciplined for fighting during the 2011-12 school year, district leaders knew that something needed to change. The district took two important steps before the 2012-13 school year began: they relaxed their student cell phone use policy to allow students to carry devices to school, and they implemented the CyberBully Hotline program at the middle and high school level.

Following these changes, Black Hawk administrators disciplined just five students for fighting during the entire 2012-13 school year — a 92 percent reduction in one year.  Shawn Kelsch, associate principal at Black Hawk, attributed the dramatic decrease to improved student reporting.  According to Kelsch, students use their mobile devices to text reports to their school’s CyberBully Hotline throughout the school day. Students make reports when they see their peers arguing or talking about fighting. This allows Kelsch and his colleagues to stop many incidents of fighting before they start.

Fighting Fire with Fire

Implementing an anonymous reporting program that meets students where they live will help open up new channels of dialogue between parents and students. These new pathways will help school administrators gain more timely and actionable information about problems within their schools. In a sense, it’s fighting fire with fire, in that much of today’s bullying and harassment originates online and via mobile devices. Why not leverage that same technology to help solve the problem?

Paul Langhorst is VP of Marketing, CyberBully Hotline.
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