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Bystanders: One key to preventing school violence

The focus of a new Secret Service report is how to improve the willingness of students and others to report concerning behavior


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“To ensure the academic success and emotional well-being of all students, schools must foster a safe and nurturing environment where students feel empowered to express their concerns and where student voices are heard.”

This statement capsulizes the focus of a recently released United States Secret Service report aiming to increase school safety.

The report, titled Improving School Safety Through Bystander Reporting: A Toolkit for Strengthening K-12 Reporting Programs (available in full below), addresses the need to have multiple sources of reporting so that those whose mental health is at risk can get the services they need, and those whose behavior indicates a precursor to violent acting out can get intervention.

Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), an entity not generally associated with school safety, joined the Secret Service in developing the document to provide schools with “actionable, practical, and cost-efficient steps toward preventing harm or acts of violence among our most important populations to defend against an evolving and unique set of threats, hazards, and security challenges.”

The report centers on five key strategies:

  1. Encouraging bystander reporting
  2. Making reporting accessible
  3. Taking action on follow-up
  4. Normalizing reporting
  5. Developing a positive climate where reporting is valued.

While there are other publications that emphasize responses to school violence, methods of reporting and threat assessment, the focus of this report is how to improve the willingness of students and others to report concerning behavior.

Why students don’t report concerning behavior

It has become an accepted principle that a significant number of school attackers showed behavior that was concerning to others, even so far as to communicate to others, in some form, their intentions.

The key to threat assessment is gathering relevant information, putting the collective data into context and providing some intervention. Barriers to getting that information from those who might know include an unwillingness to “snitch,” not knowing to whom they could report, believing the behavior they become aware of is either insignificant or not serious, not realizing the helpfulness of their knowledge, believing it is none of their business or fear of reprisal among other factors.

Factors that can encourage reporting

The CISA report describes factors that can encourage reporting.

In schools where students are made aware of security measures and the importance of reporting concerns, there is greater student involvement. Students with a positive relationship with at least one adult in the system are more likely to report. Students who are both younger and higher academic achievers are more likely to report.

School culture is important in encouraging students to report. Schools that are transparent about their process and reaction to reporting, who have a strong collective identity, and schools where positive helping services are available and it is clear that reporting is beneficial to those who need services all advance the practice of student reporting.

Assessing reporting platforms

The report reviews decision points for assessing reporting platforms, encouraging multiple means of reporting.

The most common means of getting information is through cell phones, although landlines, websites and other means should be available. The report also addresses reporting from the community as well as the student body.

Having 24-hour availability of the means of reporting and the ability to accept anonymous reports improve the chances of getting information. Confidential reports keep the information within the receiving group and allow for better follow-up.

Protocols for receiving and acting on the information provided should facilitate a timely response with triage and assessment by a multi-disciplinary team. This report emphasizes another core principle of threat assessment – this stage is not a criminal investigation nor a disciplinary process but is aimed at focusing resources where needed.

The report addresses the training of staff and marketing of a reporting program, as well as emphasizing the importance of an overall positive school culture. To apply the principles outlined in the report, the guide provides assessment tools within the document to help identify strengths, weaknesses, and potentials of current school intervention programs.

The 38-page report is easily digestible by law enforcement and school safety leaders and is based on a literature review mode of research to determine best practices. With summaries, graphs and checklists, it is a useful guide to establishing or improving bystander involvement in reporting concerning behavior.

In the early days of post-911 urging that “If you see something, say something,” the phrase had a hint of espionage behind it. Today that same phrase in a school setting should come to mean that reporting can be the most helpful thing one person can do for another.

Improving School Safety Through Bystander Reporting by epraetorian on Scribd

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at
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