Ethics Hotlines Help School Districts

You may have seen the article “Everybody Knows” two years ago in the American School Board Journal. It had a compelling lead-in:

Your employees may know about waste and fraud in your district, and you can save a lot of money and other resources by making it easy for them to tell you all about it.

In the article, author Charles Trainor encourages school districts to implement systems that encourage employees to report unethical or illegal behavior through policies and education, anonymous hotlines, and exit interviews. His suggestions are worth another look.

Policies and Education

It’s important for school districts and school boards to set high expectations for ethical behavior on the part of school district employees, board members, vendors, and other contractors. Strong policy statements are necessary but not sufficient. Ethics policies must regularly be communicated and reinforced with ongoing ethics education if they are to be effective.

For example, the Florida School Boards Association requires four hours of annual ethics training for all Florida school board members; the training is updated as needed after each year’s legislative session. It can be taken live during the state’s annual Joint Conference or can be taken as an on-demand webinar during the latter half of each year. In Massachusetts all public and municipal employees, including public school district employees, must be given a summary of the state’s conflict of interest law each year. In addition, all such employees must complete related online training every two years.

Anonymous Hotlines

Many employees recognize problems but feel unable or unwilling to report them because they don’t want to cause trouble for others or because they fear retribution, despite federal and state legislation that prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers.  But, Trainor says, tips from employees or other insiders are the most consistent source for detecting fraud. He recommends that school districts implement anonymous tip hotlines to make it easy and safe for employees to report suspected suspicious or illegal activity.

As he points out, there are various ways to implement an effective hotline. School districts can develop hotlines and monitor reports themselves; they can partner with the state’s comptroller, audit department, or inspector general’s office to share a hotline service; or they can contract with a third-party service to staff the hotlines and manage the entire process. For example, the Albuquerque (NM) Public Schools offer a third-party-managed whistleblower hotline through the school district’s internal audit department.

Exit Interviews

Interestingly, Trainor suggests that information gathered in exit interviews can supplement tips received from active employees via an ethics hotline. Too few employers engage in formal exit interviews with departing staff, but those that do provide soon-to-be former employees with another opportunity to share what they know or perceive to be true, both good and bad.

You owe very reasonable effort to identify and deal with fraudulent and unethical behavior to yourselves, your taxpayers, and the vast majority of your employees who strive to behave ethically at all times. Ethics policies, training, and hotlines are all tools to support that effort.

Ethical Advocate provides ethics hotlines and comprehensive ethics and compliance solutions across all sectors. Contact us to learn more about our services for educational institutions.


Albuquerque Public Schools. “Reporting Fraud and Theft” (webpage).

Dover-Sherborn Public Schools. “Massachusetts Ethics Law and Conflict of Interest Guidelines” (webpage – retired).

Florida School Boards Association. “Ethics Training” (webpage).

Trainor, Charles. “Everybody Knows.” American School Board Journal, February 2013.