Civil liberties groups question anonymous reporting tool

Officials said about half of reports are anonymous.

A “see something, say something” approach to reporting on-campus hazing, bullying, cheating, or suspicious behavior at Virginia colleges has some civil libertarians questioning a technology that higher-education officials insist is necessary to comply with a state law.

Twenty-five colleges throughout Virginia use a web-based incident reporting program made by a Nebraska-based company called Awareity, which markets its Threat Assessment, Incident Management, and Prevention Services (TIPS) system as a way for campus decision makers to prevent security compromises, sniff out plagiarism, and even discover broken streetlamps, among other uses.

Students who submit an Awareity report, however, don’t have to attach their names or contact information to the online submission form. Officials at schools that use the reporting system said it has not yet been used as a tool for a student with a personal vendetta against a classmate, but higher-education observers said the option for anonymity leaves open the possibility.

If a student accuses another student of running a plagiarism ring, for example, the college should have some way of allowing the accused to question the accuser, face to face, before disciplinary action is taken.

“You can get into a situation where everyone on campus is always in a position to rat out their neighbors and cause some sort of trouble, or to use [the system] to get revenge on someone,” said Robert Shibley, senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “There is inherent risk with having these kinds of anonymous reporting systems. … And if the university finds this happening, that the system is being abused in some way, they need to really reevaluate the system.”

Rick Shaw, the CEO and founder of Awareity, which also serves K-12 school districts, said colleges haven’t hedged on the anonymity reporting option. If a college student wants to wreak havoc in a classmate’s life, he said, they’re going to use more traditional means.

“What adults don’t quite understand [about] kids these days is that if they’re going to get at somebody, they’re going to do it on Facebook or they’re going to do it on Twitter,” Shaw said. “If they want to do damage in the digital realm, that’s where they are going to go.”

Virginia colleges have adopted the Awareity incident reporting system to comply with a part of the state’s Code Section that requires “each public college or university have in place policies and procedures for the prevention of violence on campus,” a rule stemming from the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

Those shootings, officials said, changed the way Virginia colleges approached threat assessment teams, which, even if assembled with great care, need information to act upon. That’s where online reporting tools come in.

“This is a way to identify red flags and halt them before they become a real issue for us,” said Garth McDonald, program manager for safety and emergency preparedness at Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC) in Hampton, Va., a school of 10,000 students that has used Awareity since February.

McDonald said TNCC officials have received about 30 Awareity reports in its nine months of operation. The system, he said, likely would not singlehandedly prevent a major security breach, but a few tips are better than none.

“Compared to knowing nothing and doing nothing, I’d rather have some information that we can act on,” said McDonald, a member of the college’s threat assessment team. “I think any [college] would feel that way.”

TNCC and other Virginia campuses that use Awareity have set up web pages showing students how to submit a report. TNCC links to the Awareity page from its homepage. McDonald said most reports have had a name attached, including every one logged by a faculty member.

Shaw said compiling a list of searchable complaints and reports stored in Awareity’s archives would allow campus investigators to spot trends before they culminate in disaster.

“Lots of schools don’t have the ability to connect all the dots,” he said, adding that out of more than 500 filed Awareity reports in the Oklahoma City Public Schools system, none have been deemed false reports. “The right information doesn’t get to the right people at the right place at the right time. That’s something schools really need to deal with right now.”

Rappahannock Community College (RCC) in Saluda, Va., converted to the Awareity platform after its former online reporting program proved ineffective, requiring students and faculty to create their own narrative instead of plugging in an incident’s time and place.

Kim McManus, vice president for administration at RCC, said the new system’s ability to store information and send it to members of the school’s threat assessment team—along with security officials and mental health workers—made for a much more reliable reporting platform.

“We were doing as best as we could before, but it was so much more unwieldy,” he said. “Before, we had to manage it the same as if someone dropped a sheet of paper on us. That wasn’t going to work for us long term.”

McManus said a student who abused the anonymous reporting option would be disciplined, although he wasn’t sure what consequences such a violation would render.

“We frown upon using it to make a false statement and getting back at someone,” he said. “That’s entirely inappropriate.”

Skeptics of anonymous reporting said the option shouldn’t be stripped from systems like Awareity, but that anonymous complaints logged in the system should not result in the suspension or expulsion of a student accused of wrongdoing.

Shibley from FIRE said anonymous reporting could be warranted if a student spotted a suspicious package sitting on a campus bench, for instance.

“Anonymous tips have always been part of crime reporting, so there’s nothing too unusual about that,” he said. “But if there are specific accusations made against someone and action is taken against a student based on that report, and you’re denied the right to face your accuser—well, that’s where the major problems can arise.”

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