Contact Us

To provide feedback on the Community Policing Dispatch, e-mail the editorial board at

To obtain details on COPS Office programs, publications, and resources, contact the COPS Office Response Center at 800-421-6770 or

U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530


April 2021 | Volume 14 | Issue 4


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported an increase in mental health–related pediatric emergency room (ER) visits in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. From March to October 2020, the proportion of mental health–related ER visits increased by 24 percent for children age 5–11 and by 31 percent for youth age 12–17 compared to the prior year (CDC 2020). Social isolation, family stress, and economic hardships created by the pandemic have made children more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The increase in mental health–related ER visits is also concerning because the suicide rate among youth age 10–24 increased by more than 57 percent from 2007 to 2018 (Curtin 2020).

Identify and Support Children in Need

To quickly respond to student safety concerns, Windsor High School in northern Colorado implemented the “Wizard Alert” system, named for the school’s mascot. When a student leaves a classroom upset or for longer than normal, teachers can message the school’s main office, provide the student’s name and explain the concern. Depending on the circumstances, school administrators have the ability to issue a “Wizard Alert” to disperse designated staff to locate the student. When the campus search does not locate the student within five minutes, school administrators contact the student’s parents and the school resource officer requests that local police conduct a welfare check at the student’s home. When the student is located, an evaluation of the concern is conducted and appropriate support is provided. In some cases, the concern has been unfounded; however, in other cases, the concern was serious (e.g., self-harm, suicide attempt, seizure). Bystanders’ tips and the “Wizard Alert” system have prompted multiple searches for students and timely interventions that have saved student’s lives.

Our children need us—as teachers, parents, and peers—to be alert. We need to notice the warning signs for distress, report our concerns to a trusted adult or tip line, and respond to reported information to provide appropriate and timely interventions, support, and follow-up (see “Additional Resources”).

These alarming statistics make it imperative that school staff, parents, and community members become aware of (1) the warning signs for mental health–related difficulties and (2) how to report and intervene to address those difficulties. Violence prevention expert and former school resource officer Susan Payne shared, “We need eyes to see [the pain] and voices to share it” to prevent a child’s distress from escalating to self-harm or violence.

Bystander reporting provides an excellent resource for sharing concerns. Following the attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, several states and schools adopted bystander reporting programs such as anonymous or confidential tip lines to encourage people to report their concerns about others’ worrisome behavior or communication (e.g., hopelessness, threat, self-harm). These tip lines have been extremely successful in preventing suicide, averting school violence, and investigating child abuse. Recent reports from the U.S. Secret Service and the National Police Foundation have identified numerous instances where a tip from a concerned peer, teacher, or parent prompted an intervention that saved a life (Langman and Straub 2019; NTAC 2019). These reports also documented cases where others observed but did not report their concerns, and a violent attack occurred (Langman and Straub 2019; NTAC 2019).

Many children struggle with mental health issues as a result of issues such as family violence, abuse, and bullying from peers. This can lead to problem behaviors ranging from truancy to self-harm or harm to others. Schools and communities should adopt a “Stand up, Speak up” philosophy to create a culture that empowers teachers, students, and others to report their concerns so that children can get help and support to address problems.

Using Bystander Reporting to Save a Life

Trust is the most critical element of an effective bystander reporting program. In school settings, “upstanders” (bystanders who come forward with information) are influenced by positive relations with one or more adults in the school (e.g., teachers or staff) or a feeling within the school that the information will be taken seriously and addressed appropriately (Pollack et al. 2008). Trusting relationships arise in schools where a positive climate is fostered (Federal Commission on School Safety 2018).

Bystander Reporting as a Critical Opportunity for Preventing Violence

Given the absence from in-person learning and the increased stressors caused by the pandemic, bystander reporting represents a critical opportunity for preventing violence in schools. In a study of 37 school attacks, the U.S. Secret Service found that more than 90 percent of attackers had engaged in concerning behavior at school, 77 percent had engaged in concerning behavior at home or in the community, and 74 percent had engaged in concerning behavior online. In 81 percent of these cases, at least one other person had knowledge of the attacker’s plan to cause harm (Fein et al. 2004). The vast majority (93 percent) of these “bystanders” were peers of the perpetrator—friends, classmates, or siblings (Pollack et al. 2008). Thus, we have opportunities to intervene to prevent violence. A more recent study of 41 school attacks found that 41 percent of attacks occurred within the first week back to school following a break in attendance (e.g., suspensions, holidays, or truancy) (NTAC 2019). Nearly one-quarter of attacks took place on the first day the attacker returned to school after an absence (NTAC 2019).

Thus, school leaders should ask:

  1. Do our students and staff know what to report (e.g., concerning behavior)?
    • Are they familiar with the warning signs for potential self-harm and targeted violence?
  2. Do our students and staff know how to report concerning behavior?
    • Do they have access to a tip line or a school-based crisis team that can be contacted via phone, text, email, website, or mobile app?
    • Do they know what details to provide so the concern can be investigated?
  3. Do they trust the bystander reporting program enough to use it?
    • Do they believe the tip line is safe (anonymous or confidential)?
    • Do they believe the tip line produces timely, fair investigations and resolutions that are supportive, not punitive?

Then, school leaders should review their procedures for receiving, investigating, and managing bystanders’ reports. The questions to ask include the following: (1) How are reports triaged, investigated, and resolved, and by whom? (2) How is this process monitored and assessed to ensure timely responses and continuous improvement?

Recognizing School Culture and Climate as the Foundation of School Safety

The U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education have described a positive school climate, including bystander reporting, as the foundation of all school safety work. A positive school culture is one where students and staff notice and report their concerns to a responsible adult (or tip line)—embracing the philosophy that “sharing is caring” (not “telling is tattling”). To accurately gauge the likelihood that students and staff will notice and report their concerns, the U.S. Department of Education recommends that schools

  • educate students, staff, and parents on the warning signs for self-harm and targeted school violence and on the ways to report those concerns;
  • assess the culture and climate of the school-community using a climate survey, disciplinary data, or observational data or some combination of these;
  • monitor the functioning of the school’s bystander reporting program by examining the quality of the tips received and the handling of those tips.

Table 1. Bystander reporting—Warning signs, actions, and resources for mental health, suicide, and school violence concerns

Mental health Suicide School violence
Warning signs for concern
  • having lost interest in things
  • having low energy
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • spending more and more time alone
  • engaging in self-harm
  • having little to no interest in playing with other children
  • struggling academically or experiencing a decline in grades
  • talking about feeling hopeless
  • having a lack of relationships and social support
  • talking about wanting to die, kill oneself, or having no reason to live
  • sleeping too little or too much
  • seeing a local cluster of suicides
  • having impulsive or aggressive tendencies
  • experiencing a mental disorder (e.g., anxiety, depression, schizophrenia)
  • threatening to harm another or expressing an intent to attack
  • expressing intense or escalating anger
  • experiencing sadness, depression, or isolation
  • having an interest in weapons
  • changing appearance or behavior
  • attempting suicide and/or engaging in self-harm
  • expressing an interest in violence
  • speaking of suffering from or having suffered from aggressive bullying
  • declining grades or attendance
  • harassing others
Actions to take
  • Report concern to a trusted adult (e.g., school official, law enforcement officer, or mental health professional) or bystander reporting tip line; follow-up to ensure preventive action taken.
  • Talk openly about mental health concerns, take statements about depression or despair seriously, provide support, and follow-up.
  • Contact a medical professional, mental health professional, or local crisis center for help and support.
  • Report concern to a trusted adult (e.g., school official, law enforcement officer, or mental health professional) or bystander reporting tip line; follow-up to ensure preventive action taken.
  • Talk openly about mental health concerns, take statements about depression or despair seriously, provide support, and follow-up.
  • Contact a medical professional, mental health professional, or local crisis center for help and support.
  • Report concern to a trusted adult (e.g., school official, law enforcement officer, mental health professional) or bystander reporting tip line; follow-up to ensure preventive action taken.
  • Conduct a threat assessment to assess risk for violence, develop intervention strategies to manage risk, ask about and restrict access to weapons, and monitor progress or decline (e.g., grades, emotion management, responsiveness).
  • Contact law enforcement, if the threat is imminent.
Website resources
Additional Resources

Bystander Reporting and Response

School Culture and Climate

Subscribe to Email Updates

To sign up for monthly updates or to access your subscriber preferences, please enter your email address in the Subscribe box.