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$4.1 million grant to help principals improve safety in schools

November 14, 2016

COLUMBIA, Mo. - More than 22 percent of children from ages 12-18 say they have been bullied in school within the last month, while 17 percent of high school students say they have seriously considered attempting suicide within the last year. Research has shown that school principals play a vital role in improving and maintaining physically and emotionally safe schools; however, no training programs for principals currently exist that have been scientifically proven to help improve school safety. Now, school safety experts from the Missouri Prevention Center and the University of Missouri College of Education, have received a $4.1 million grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to study a training program specifically for principals.

The program, Safe and Civil Schools Leadership, aims to help principals create and maintain safe learning environments. Keith Herman, a professor in the MU College of Education and co-director of the Missouri Prevention Center, says this work will lead to improved training methods for principals across the country.

"We know that principals play a vital role in school safety, but the education system hasn't done a great job of training principals to manage all aspects of school safety," Herman said. "Our goal is to identify a program that improves school safety. By applying scientific methods, we can determine if this program is effective and worth implementing in schools across the country."

The NIJ grant will support research of the Safe and Civil Schools Leadership program over the course of four years. The University of Missouri researchers will study the program in 60 middle schools and high schools across the Puget Sound region in state of Washington.

"Safe and Civil Schools programs are all about getting evidence-based practices interpreted into educator-friendly language, organized in a practical format and implemented within a sustainable framework in order to promote the behavioral and academic success of all students," said Laura Matson, special services director for the Puget Sound Educational Service District. "We hope this program will provide our administrators with the necessary tools to lead, empower and sustain improved practices related to student behavior and school climate and we are excited to see how this important work can help further promote safety within our schools."

The Safe and Civil Schools Leadership program teaches principals how to:
  • collect and use meaningful data to guide decisions about changing a school's climate;
  • create behavior leadership teams who will collect and interpret the data and monitor progress;
  • focus on clear expectations and high rates of positive staff-student interactions;
  • monitor and support student behavior in all school settings (common areas, classrooms, buses, hallways);
  • support teachers in developing effective classroom management strategies.
During the study, the researchers will gather baseline data about each school's safety climate, such as physical safety, emotional safety, the rate of bully victimization and other important factors that determine the overall safety rating of each school.

Additionally, past research has shown that high rates of tardiness within schools contribute to unsafe school environments. To combat this, the researchers will support principals in implementing an approach based on the same principles of Safe and Civil School Leadership, called START on Time, which has been shown to reduce tardiness rates within schools. This approach includes increasing the hallway presence of adults during passing periods; positive interactions between adults and students, such as greeting students at the door; and positive attention and encouragement for students who arrive on time. The researchers will provide these companion programs for reducing tardiness and improving school leadership at each school and measure the changes in those safety measures after two years compared to schools that did not utilize these programs.

"High tardiness rates within schools contribute to less safe school environments," Herman said. "By first reducing tardiness rates, principals will be able to receive buy-in from teachers and students who will be able to see an immediate impact upon the safety of their schools. At that point, they will be well-positioned to implement the other aspects of the Safe and Civil Schools Leadership program, allowing us to determine its efficacy in promoting school safety."

Herman says Safe and Civil Schools Leadership is a promising program for improving school safety because it teaches principals how to collect data about student, staff and parent perceptions of school climate and then how to make good, informed decisions based on that data to improve the safety climate. Also, Herman says the program already is well-recognized, has many easily understood features, is well-produced and could be distributed widely if it is proven to be effective.

Other University of Missouri researchers involved on this NIJ-funded research grant include Wendy Reinke, professor of educational, school and counseling psychology and co-director of the Missouri Prevention Center; James Sebastian, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy; Francis Huang, an assistant professor of educational, school and counseling psychology; and Aaron Thompson, an assistant professor of social work in the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences.

University of Missouri-Columbia

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