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Getting students to tattle on peers could thwart school shootings

August 17, 2011|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots blog
  • Jared Cano, 17, is accused of plotting to set off an explosive device at his high school in Tampa, Fla. A tipster alerted Tampa police.
Jared Cano, 17, is accused of plotting to set off an explosive device at his… (Cherie Diez / St. Petersburg…)

Police in Tampa, Fla., are crediting an unidentified tipster for alerting them to an alleged plan by 17-year-old Jared Cano to detonate an explosive device on the first day of school at Freedom High School, from which he had been expelled. Along with explosive materials, law enforcement officials said they found a detailed plan to attack the school and kill approximately 32 people on campus.

In the wake of the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School that left 13 people and the two assailants dead, authorities in Colorado realized that the shooters – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – had telegraphed their intentions on the Web, in school essays and in threats made against other students. If only one of the many students who knew about their intentions had come forward, perhaps the plot could have been foiled. But a group called the Columbine Review Commission found that a “code of silence” prevented friends and classmates from tattling on Harris and Klebold.

The case is not unique. A 2004 study by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education revealed that in about 80% of school shootings, friends or peers of the attacker knew that plans were in the works but kept that knowledge to themselves.

What would encourage students to break that code of silence for the sake of public safety? That problem was taken up by the Colorado attorney general’s office. Working with partners from government and the private sector, they created Safe2Tell, a 24-hour service that allows people to pass along tips anonymously either by phone or online.

Anonymity is a key feature of Safe2Tell, according to a report published this year in New Directions for Youth Development. “The assurance that calls cannot be traced and that appropriate action will be taken is critical to breaking the code of silence and helping young people to recognize that loyalty to friends sometimes means taking threats seriously and asking for help on their behalf,” according to the report.

Convincing would-be tipsters that their tips will allow their friends to get help they need – rather than just punishment – also increases the likelihood that students will become informants, according to another 2004 report from the Secret Service and the Department of Education.

Is it working? Safe2Tell operators now field more than 100 calls a month, and 83% of reports “resulted in a positive intervention or action,” according to the New Directions study. Law enforcement officials credit the tip line with averting 28 school attacks that were in the planning stages.

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