A Deep Dive into Potomac’s new Anonymous Bias Reporting System

Will the system’s anonymity prove an effective complement to trusted adults for Potomac students who feel that they have been the target of bias?


Ali O'Brien

A student peruses the Anonymous Alerts home screen from which they can report an incident of bias.

Ali O’Brien, Co-Editor-in-Chief

On April 14, Mr. Ryan Woods, the Head of the Intermediate School and the leader of Potomac’s task force on bias reporting, announced the launch of a pilot program in the Upper School that is intended to address incidents of bias. The reporting system utilizes Anonymous Alerts, an app that allows students to submit incidents of bias with or without using their names. Reports are sent from the app to Associate Head of School for Academics Ms. Juna McDaid, and Director of Human Resources Ms. Danyel O’Farrell. They briefly assess the submission and forward it to the designated response team: Reports on faculty, administrators, or other employees are dealt with by the Human Resource department; reports on students are transmitted to a standing Bias Response Team within the student’s division. 

The system grew out of Potomac’s increased focus on reducing instances of bias, partly through educating all members of the community about bias, and partly by investigating reports of bias. As first reported in The Current, incidents of bias at the school were posted anonymously on a series of Instagram accounts that were created in the summer of 2020. The posts included complaints from students who felt disrespected throughout their careers at Potomac.

Interim Director of Equity and Community Initiatives Dr. Sandra Heard said, “Indirectly, students told us that our reporting systems weren’t working, that is why we had the Instagram posts.” She said the system is “a response to what students told us that they wanted.”

Dean of Student Life and member of the Upper School’s Bias Response Team Jake Westermann said something that “came up in a lot of the conversations over the last two years is that one of the reasons why students don’t bring concerns forward is because they think that it’s met with inaction.” In addition to the bias reporting process, the system being put into place includes the establishment of a Bias Response Team, which, in the Upper School, is composed of Mr. Westermann, Mr. McLane, Dr. Heard, Mr. Singleton, and Mrs. Woods.

Mr. Westermann said, “Rather than a report coming just to my office and then getting lost in the fray where I’m not held accountable, now you’ve got five people.” He said that the goal of the larger Bias Response Team is to “see a greater response to whatever report because more people know about it without risking confidentiality.” 

Anonymous Alerts was selected as the platform for the system after the committee conducted research, viewed demonstrations, and tested various platforms. The committee found that Anonymous Alerts stood out because of its two-way communication and security features. Mr. Woods said, “We really wanted direct communication with a person who was making a report.” Anonymous Alerts will send notifications to students of the status of their reports throughout the process, including next steps recommended by the Bias Response Team. Mr. Woods expressed his desire for students to know that a report “isn’t going away” citing the “need for a dialogue.”

In addition to two-way communication, Anonymous Alerts incorporated security features to prevent abuse of the system. Mr. Woods explained, “We were concerned a lot about how people can mess with the system to play a joke and put in erroneous reports to tarnish people’s reputation.” To address this concern, at least as it relates to reports coming from outside Potomac, Mr. Woods said that the committee chose “the app that has a school passcode.”

However, as reported by Jessica Raman, some students have voiced concerns about the nature of the app’s anonymity, which they worry could backfire if they were to find themselves the target of a malicious report. Dr. Sandra Heard said, “I think there might be mixed feelings around the system. I think there are some people in the community, adults and students, who believe that the anonymous alerts are going to encourage people to make false reports, and to demonize people without being accountable.” Despite these concerns, Dr. Heard believes the system can still help students to share concerns with administrators. “I think it’s really useful when students feel that they are scared to talk to an adult or there is no one that they can trust. I think it’s good for that student who is very serious about reporting something, but they really don’t want you to know who they are because of a fear of retribution.”

The anonymity of reports also calls into question the effectiveness of the system to respond to incidents without knowing the identity of the reporter, who may be reluctant to provide context that would identify them. Dr. Heard said, “we can only do so much with limited information.” 

Because of these restrictions of an anonymous system, the committee encourages students to bring concerns to a trusted adult. Mr. Westermann said, “Our hope is that Anonymous Alerts is the nuclear option” and that “we need to do a better job of promoting the idea that the best way is to go to a trusted adult,” emphasizing that “when you come forward with information to an adult, we can do more with it.”

While no system is perfect and Anonymous Alerts comes with its own set of risks, the many trusted adults at Potomac have not been enough to address all incidents of bias, as the Instagram accounts made clear.

When asked about the relevance of the identity of those who designed the system, Mr. Westermann said “I think about that all the time, and I can’t change that.” He elaborated that “the committee itself is more diverse,” yet “being the face of anything and knowing how we enter that space is on my mind.”

Mr. Woods echoed this sentiment, saying, “We need many voices. I think the piece that’s really important in this work is that we want people diverse backgrounds weighing in on a decision about bias and discrimination.”

As the school year winds to a close, it is unclear whether Potomac will share data from the pilot program with the wider school community and what the future of the reporting system may look like. Mr. Westermann said, “I think people would value seeing something in the way of data, obviously while maintaining confidentiality.” He also mentioned potential applications of the system in the future. He said, “Right now, we really wanted to center the experiences of marginalized students and faculty, but ultimately it can function as a system for reporting a concern about a student” where “anonymity is extremely important.”