Patrolman Rick Farnsler has been assigned to work at Elizabethtown Area High School for years as the school resource officer. In that time, he has developed relationships with students and gotten tips that allow police to stop crime before it happens.
But efforts to allow for anonymous tips haven't worked. For years, there has been a 24-hour countywide school violence tip line, but Farnsler said it has not been effective. He said there are two problems with the phone system: First, it's only designed for things like fights, not for crimes like stealing and graffiti. And second, students are unlikely to remember the toll-free number, he said.
“Unless kids put it into their contacts, they're not going to remember it,” Farnsler said in an interview.
Also, there has been a box set up where students can drop anonymous notes in, but that low-tech method has not been used once, Farnsler said.
“The way they communicate is very different from the way we communicate,” Farnsler said when he asked the Elizabethtown Rotary Club to fund a new method: an anonymous text messaging system. The club agreed to pay the $399 setup fee and the $1,200 annual cost of the system, so it is being done at no cost to taxpayers.
Farnsler said the system takes precautions to prevent an electronic trail from finding the person who sent the tip.
“If you say it's anonymous, it better be anonymous,” Farnsler said.
Farnsler said the messages go through a computer system in Canada to prevent U.S. courts from having jurisdiction. Without this precaution, Farnsler said, “A sharp defense attorney could subpoena the records here in the United States and get them.”
Although police will not know who sent the message, the system allows police to send messages back to the tipster to ask follow-up questions, Farnsler said.
As of Wednesday, Sept. 14, the system had been used twice, Farnsler said, even though most students did not know about it yet. Both were for minor offenses, at least one of which was only a violation of school rules, not a crime.
“We're only now starting to get the word out to the students,” Farnsler said. Informing students of the new system was delayed because of the school days missed because of the recent floods, he said.
Farnsler said as far as he knows, Elizabethtown is the only school district in the region using this system, although he said the Lancaster City School District is considering it.
Students who want to sumbit an anonymous message can text it to 274637 (crimes). Students should enter the keyword “Etown” at the beginning of the tip. Farnsler said capitalization of that keyword does not matter, but it is important not to include any punctuation; he said “E-Town” with a hyphen will not go through. Students can also submit anonymous tips through a web-based program on the district website at www.etownschools.org. Tips submitted online are sent directly to the Text-A-Tip hotline and received as if they were sent on a mobile phone.
School officials encourage students to use the system to report information about any non-urgent illegal activity such as vandalism, theft, the sale of drugs or information about crimes that are being planned. However, for urgent matters or emergency situations, students are urged to call 911.