When it comes to reporting weapons in schools, kids are often each others' best watchdogs. In light of the recent Washington high school shooting, and the school shootings in recent years at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Columbine, police departments across the country are constantly brainstorming new ways to decrease the likelihood of violent events occurring on school grounds.
Researchers at UT-Dallas compiled specific data concerning how, when and why students report seeing weapons in school. According to the study, 34 percent of students anonymously report seeing a weapon of some sort on campus sometime in the last three months.
"That number was higher than we expected," concedes Dr. Nadine Connell, one of the authors of the study. "But the flip side was on average over 90 percent reported being willing to tell someone about that. They're not ignoring it; they're not taking it on as their own responsibility."
In Dallas ISD, Police Chief Craig Miller says campus security depends on students coming forward when they see a potentially dangerous situation. "What would happen, and it's not unusual, is if social media or a friend told us someone had a weapon, we would discreetly confront or try to ascertain whether that was correct," he says.
"I think social media and kids are our best resource. A lot of the time in school shootings there were some precursors, some indication the the kid was going to do this. So we have to take whatever someone says very seriously."
Most commonly, students feel comfortable speaking to a trusted adult rather than an on-campus authority figure. "We have found that they may feel comfortable coming forward, but not necessarily to the correct person," Connell says. "What we found was that generally speaking, students were more likely to speak to a parent or family member than they were to a teacher or principal or counselor. They were willing to speak to those people, just not as often. They were also willing to tell a police officer more than teachers or administration, but still not as often as a family member."
Around three years ago, the reliance on student reporting was put to the test when a DISD student was found to have several guns and 1,500 rounds of ammunition at his home. District police were informed about the threat by another kid, who had seen an ominous post on this student's Facebook page.
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"Whether or not the student would have committed this crime, we certainly found that he had these weapons. And we wouldn't have known about this if someone hadn't relayed that information to the police," Miller says. "That's what we have to rely on, that people will come forward and take a threat seriously."
Connell notes that research confirms how much district police must rely on student reporting. "We have seen how important student interaction with adults is when there is a potential threat. So it's important to create an environment where they feel comfortable coming forward," she says.
Miller agrees that establishing strong, trusting relationships with students is a critical component to security. He says DISD's primary use of school police, who get to know the individual kids and their situations, as opposed to municipal police, is an elemental distinction.
"The police officer who's on campus all the time develops a rapport with the students, so that the students feel comfortable coming forward with information, and so that the officer has a relationship with the campus administration," he says. "I think that we have to believe in integrity, that someone who has that information will come forward. I think if kids really believe that there is a threat, they will come forward."