$2 million grant to help identify and avert threats for students in rural Missouri schools

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As school safety remains a critical issue for students, teachers and families, researchers at the University of Missouri are using a $2 million grant from the Department of Justice to help identify and avert threats students or others may make on school grounds involving potential harm to themselves or others.

The project, which will partner with up to 26 rural school districts throughout Missouri, will be fully implemented by fall 2023 and connect to the schools' Wi-Fi servers to monitor online activity for threatening language or images.

If a potential threat is captured through videos, text messages, emails or social media posts, the school would be alerted so potential assessments and interventions can happen to avoid anyone harming themselves or others. The other key component of this is creating threat assessment teams, which could include school principals, teachers, school resource officers, school psychologists, counselors, social workers and law enforcement individuals, as we will be training them on how to respond and intervene."

Keith Herman, the grant's primary investigator and a Curators' Distinguished Professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development

For threats involving suicide, an evidence-based approach called the Columbia Protocol, which has been used in schools for decades, will provide a systematic way for the threat assessment teams to talk with individuals of interest to determine the level of risk and best practices for interventions to avoid self-harm.

For potential threats to harm others, an evidence-based approach developed at the University of Virginia will be utilized, which involves the threat assessment team discussing step-by-step processes for how best to respond, including possible involvement from local law enforcement members.

"Rural schools tend to have less resources in these areas, and we have heard from many rural Missouri school districts that they currently don't have these threat assessment teams and systematic procedures in place. So we want to help implement these resources to support their schools and communities," Herman said. "Obviously there has been an increased spotlight on recent school shootings, and we also know many students have been struggling throughout the pandemic with mental health concerns. So hopefully the combination of the technology and the trainings will make schools safer, and those who work in the schools will feel more confident in responding and intervening when threats arise."

Herman is co-director of the Missouri Prevention Science Institute and the National Center for Rural School Mental Health, co-developer of the Boone County Family Access Center of Excellence and a board member for the Boone County Schools Mental Health Coalition.

"My overall goal is to create nurturing environments for students to thrive, and safety is at the foundation of a nurturing environment," Herman said. "Partnerships are all about listening to the needs of the schools and then providing the resources and expertise to meet those needs."

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