The National Institutes of Justice have awarded faculty members at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education $6.1 million to advance two longstanding research projects aimed at keeping students safe in school, as part of the federal government’s Comprehensive School Safety Initiative.
The two projects look at distinct but significant elements of school safety. Professor and Associate Dean Catherine Bradshaw will examine the effects of creating and maintaining a positive school climate in Maryland middle schools. Dewey Cornell, professor and director of the Youth Violence Project, will evaluate the statewide implementation and impact of using threat-assessment procedures as a violence prevention strategy in Virginia public schools. Both Bradshaw and Cornell are faculty members with Youth-Nex: The U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.
Bradshaw received $3.6 million for her project evaluating a specific program designed to increase a positive school climate for middle school students. The project focuses on a set of “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,” which aims to improve school climate and provide a framework for faculty and administrators to meet the behavioral and mental health needs of students.
“We have found through previous studies of the effects of PBIS in both elementary and high schools that the more positive students feel about their school, the lower the rate of behavior problems and violence,” Bradshaw said.
According to Bradshaw, researchers consider three elements when evaluating a school’s climate: safety, engagement and environment. The safer students feel, the more engaged students are with each other and their teachers, and the more appealing the environment, the lower the level of violence.
Her research team, which includes collaborators at Johns Hopkins University, is also looking closely at the potential inequities that exist within a school’s climate.
“What we want to avoid is that a school has a positive climate for some students, but a negative one for others,” Bradshaw said. “Being sure that every student experiences the same positive school climate is critical. Teachers need training in specific strategies and tools they can use to improve engagement of all learners.”
The National Institutes of Justice grant will allow Bradshaw and her team to test the PBIS model in 40 middle schools across three diverse Maryland counties in the Baltimore metro area.
Cornell will lead his project, “Student Threat Assessment as a Safe and Supportive Prevention Strategy,” in partnership with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and the Virginia Department of Education.
According to Cornell, perpetrators of school violence almost always threaten to carry out an attack or give indications of violent intentions before acting out. The goal of a structured threat assessment strategy in schools is to identify the threat and intervene appropriately before an act of violence is committed.
In 2001, Cornell and his team of researchers at the Youth Violence Project developed a set of guidelines for school administrators to use in response to a threat of violence; to date, they have conducted six studies of the model that have demonstrated positive results. In July 2013, Virginia became the first state in the nation to mandate threat assessment teams in its 1,900 public schools.
“Threats can happen frequently and range in severity,” Cornell said. “The goal of an effective threat assessment team is to avoid overreacting to minor misbehavior or underreacting to potentially serious behavior.”
Cornell and his team will conduct a statewide review of threats identified by school authorities, examining the types of threats and the procedures that schools followed in responding to the threats. They will develop a statewide inventory of threat assessment practices used by schools and develop training in the most effective practices.
For Cornell, threat assessments are the antithesis of the “zero-tolerance” policy that uses automatic suspension or expulsion from school, a practice that has been widely criticized for its disproportionate impact on minority students. One goal of this study is to examine whether the threat assessment model is a safe and effective strategy for reducing suspensions.
According to the National Institutes of Justice, the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative aims to “build science-based knowledge about the causes of school violence and test innovative approaches.” U.Va. was one of only three universities among the nine research grant recipients and the only university with two projects awarded.
“For years now, scholars at the Curry School of Education have played a major role in school safety research and policy, and in promoting practices in schools that create more positive climates for learning,” Curry School Dean Robert Pianta said. “These two major grants, awarded as a result of a highly competitive process, squarely place the Curry School as the national leader in school safety research. Both Cornell and Bradshaw are not only top-notch scholars, but are firmly committed to making sure their work has a positive impact on the everyday experiences of students in America’s schools.”