Nearly every violent incident at a school, a workplace, or a public setting is followed by media coverage in which people point to obvious warning signs that had been ignored. It may have been a student shooter’s obsession with weaponry, a co-worker’s muttered threats, a mass killer’s propensity for harming animals … in each case, there’s something the after-the-fact experts tell us we should have noticed that maybe, just maybe would have prevented the violence.
Assume we had taken note of the behavior in question. What were we supposed to do with our observations and suspicions?
For a long time, society has trained us to keep our mouths shut. As children, we’re told not to be “tattletales,” and as adolescents, “telling on someone” can result in our incurring the wrath of a bully. In the adult world, the idea of sharing information is often considered to be “ratting” on someone and “whistleblowers” are typically isolated by others around them.
After 9/11 and incidents such as the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings, that attitude started to shift. Law enforcement and other authorities have shared the message that when we see something that makes us uneasy, we need to say something about it. If a student is making violent threats on social media, we need to alert the school’s principal. If a co-worker makes angry comments about the manager and audibly fantasizes about shooting her, we need to tell someone who can investigate.
It makes sense, but again we go back to the question: what are we supposed to do with our observations and suspicions? We don’t want to be perceived as a tattletale or rat, nor do we want to become the target of someone who’s unstable just because we shared our concerns about that individual and his or her behavior.
That’s where the value of some type of reporting system that allows people to make reports either anonymously or with the confidence that their names will be kept secret. People are far more likely to call attention to dangerous situations if they don’t fear any personal backlash.
Such a system doesn’t have to be limited to threats or criminal activities, and one of the most successful examples exists in the aviation industry. Some years back, industry and government leaders collaborated to create the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), which provides a way for pilots, service technicians, air traffic controllers, and others to self-report near-misses, mistakes, and other problems without fear of penalty or retribution. The goal of systems like ASRS is to gather information that can identify underlying problems and educate others, so they don’t make the same mistakes. Reporting systems can also be put into place for issues such as fraud, sexual harassment, and compliance issues.
Many school districts are now using the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System that was developed by the violence prevention organization known as Sandy Hook Promise. The system gives students and adults a way to alert school administrators to potentially dangerous situations, so they can investigate and intervene as necessary.
Creating an effecting voluntary reporting program includes several considerations. First, you need a clear scope and straightforward process. How will reporting take place? Who will receive those reports? Ideally, the person or people you select to play that role should be well-known and respected leaders who have demonstrated professional maturity.
Your process should also spell out exactly what that person is expected to do with the information and how quickly they should take action. That’s especially important when you receive a report of something such as suicidal ideation, in which delays are unacceptable. How will reports and follow-up be documented? You also don’t want to establish a process that circumvents or undermines established authorities such as law enforcement or school administrators, or that puts your organization at risk for violating laws. As an example, some states require immediate reporting of suspected child abuse, so your process can’t sidestep that.
Most of all, you must protect the confidentiality of people making reports. There’s no room for error -- a single breach of that confidentiality will destroy any trust people have placed in the system and ensure that nobody will make any reports.