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Telephone hotlines have become a useful tool in detecting and preventing misconduct. Law-enforcement agencies routinely use a toll-free number to solicit information that might lead to an arrest. Large employers, especially those with a geographically dispersed workforce, use telephone hotlines as an essential element of their employee-relations program, enabling employees — anonymously, if they prefer — to speak up about their concerns, ranging from sexual harassment to incorrect paychecks. Public companies have embraced the hotline as the most effective way to encourage communication regarding accounting irregularities and financial fraud.

Education institutions recently have begun to follow the lead of corporate America in adopting hotlines as a tool for soliciting critical communications from students and staff, parents and the general public. Some schools have resisted anonymous hotlines open to students, citing the prospect of bogus calls. Although unfounded accusations are certainly a risk, a robust interview process will discourage a caller whose story doesn't stand up to detailed questioning. This type of concern was common in the business world many years ago, but hotlines have proven to deliver benefits, including improving safety and detecting fraud, that far outweigh the risks.

Facing challenges

Schools face serious challenges to safety and security, including acts or threats of violence, possession of weapons, use or sale of drugs, theft of school property, and suicide. In most cases, administrators are alerted in time to only a small fraction of the potentially serious problems developing in the institution. Budget cuts and reduced staffing exacerbate the situation because there aren't enough staff members to evaluate problems and determine where to focus efforts. A hotline can help busy administrators separate the truly critical situations from those that are a lower priority.

The best way for students, parents or staff to voice concerns is to speak to someone in a position of authority who can understand and evaluate the problem. But some people will feel uncomfortable discussing the situation with someone they know or who knows them. In these cases, the hotline is another way to find out about threats to safety and security.

A hotline can function as an early-warning system for volatile issues. Safety may be the primary reason for adopting a hotline, but it also can be used to report other issues, such as fraudulent accounting practices, cheating or falsifying records. Employees and contractors, as well as students, can use the hotline to report unethical or illegal activity on campus. The possibility of remaining anonymous encourages individuals to speak up without fear of retaliation.

Understanding the practices that have proven most useful in other contexts can help a school avoid some pitfalls as it sets up a hotline. For example, initial communication to parents, educators, staff and other audiences will help set the tone for the hotline, improving its acceptance. Thoughtful decisions about the type of hotline and how information from a call will be communicated also will pay off in the long run.

Hotline best practices

To be effective, a hotline must be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; 40 percent of hotline reports are made at night or on weekends.

Just having an answering machine is not enough. A person who is anxious about making a report may not feel comfortable leaving a recorded message. A caller should be able to speak to an experienced interviewer who can lead the caller through a series of questions tailored to the particular issue and circumstances of the call. The interviewer thus can be certain that he or she has gathered as much pertinent information as is needed for the issue to be investigated and resolved, even if the caller is emotional or disorganized. This procedure also helps detect and discourage bogus calls. A skilled interviewer following a proven interview protocol is especially important when the caller wants to remain anonymous because there may never be another chance to get the information.

An external hotline provider may enhance a hotline's effectiveness. Callers may be reluctant to voice complaints internally for fear of reprisal, and having a third-party provider improves the perception of confidentiality. Outsourcing also can be cost-effective. For most school systems, outsourcing provides another key benefit: professional services that minimize the time required of school system staff members, who already may be overworked.

Planning for report distribution

Prior to establishing a hotline, plans needs to be made for how information hotline reports will be distributed. Not all calls are urgent, and not all calls need to go to the same person. Advance planning will help ensure that information is sent to the right people and that it gets there rapidly when the situation dictates. A triage system will help identify critical reports requiring immediate notification — by a midnight phone call if necessary. This function is especially important in the case of a threat of impending violence, when immediate notice could help prevent a catastrophe.

Triage by issue assists in disseminating information to the people best able to deal with it. For example, a call about student bullying will go to a different school official than a report of a break-in at the science building. Previously determined rules for dissemination of hotline reports helps keep the information secure and facilitates followup.

Especially in a larger and more complex university setting, having one centralized number for reporting illegal or unethical behavior simplifies communication for all potential callers. Distribution guided by a triage process helps avoid potentially disastrous delays resulting from passing a report up the chain of command: the report goes immediately to the person who needs to know about it.

Building awareness

Appropriate communications will ensure the hotline is used for its intended purpose. Communications materials should explain the purpose of the hotline, as well as when and how to use it. Ideally, messages should be tailored to the different audiences involved, including parents, students and staff. At a minimum, students should receive a brochure explaining the reasons for the hotline, the type of issues covered, how to use the hotline, and its confidentiality. A letter should be sent to all parents of K-12 students. In-service training of teachers should address the responsibility of maintaining a safe educational environment, and the role a hotline can play in preventing damage.

After the initial rollout of a hotline program, use reminder announcements in staff meetings and assemblies, as well as posters, newsletters and websites to maintain awareness. Displays in key areas act as a reminder that a school or university cares about safety and integrity, and wants to be able to address issues that threaten a safe and ethical environment.

Exall is corporate counsel of The Network, Inc., Atlanta, a provider of hotline services since 1982.

NOTABLE

Possible reasons for maintaining an anonymous hotline:

  • IMPROVES PERCEPTION OF CONFIDENTIALITY.
  • PROVIDES ASSURANCE THAT A REPORT WILL NOT BE OVERLOOKED.
  • CAN BE COST-EFFECTIVE.
  • MINIMIZES TIME REQUIRED OF SCHOOL STAFF.
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