U of M partners to improve school safety in Genesee County, MI

A photo of participants of a program at Beecher's Tucker Elementary School.

Originally posted on our sister center’s website, Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center (MI-YVPC).

In response to multiple school shootings in the U.S., the Department of Justice created the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative (CSSI) to study promising programs that may improve school climate and safety. Since 2014, over $240 million
has been awarded to research school-based safety programs around the U.S.

In 2015, the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice, and the Genesee Intermediate School District received funding from this initiative to develop and evaluate a comprehensive school safety program in Genesee County, MI. This is a community with significant neighborhood instability, disadvantage, and violent crime. It is also home to the city of Flint.

The research team is studying the effectiveness of three promising methods to improve school climate and safety for elementary school students in Genesee County:

  • Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED): Adopted from criminology, CPTED involves assessing and modifying the physical environment to reduce opportunities for negative activity and crime, while inviting positive activity and increasing a sense of community ownership. Through CPTED, school personnel identifies simple interventions like installing security lighting or planting a school garden, to communicate that an area is observable, claimed for positive activity, and unfit for vandalism or violence.
  • Mental Health First Aid (MHFA): MHFA training provides teachers, administrators and school staff with the skills to identify students under mental duress and establishes protocols to refer those students to appropriate mental health professionals.
  • Restorative Justice: Restorative Justice includes interactive and inclusive practices such as talking circles that empower students to build bonds and resolve conflicts constructively, rather than relying on traditional forms of discipline, (e.g. detention or suspension).

Initial steps

Under usual conditions, low resource schools might be challenged to implement such an intensive, multi-faceted intervention. To counter this challenge, the initiative is providing built-in support in the form of a three-person team of experts, who are stationed directly in the schools. The three-person leadership team (3PLT) is comprised of a school resource officer (a Sheriff’s Deputy), a climate specialist (with a background in Social Work) and a representative from the school (in most cases the principal) who work closely with school personnel to implement these programs with 4th, 5th and 6th grade classrooms.

Using school system data and student surveys, the evaluation team, led by Dr. Justin Heinze, is assessing the program’s effectiveness in a three-year randomized control trial in 20 schools (ten intervention schools and ten control schools). We are examining individual and school level outcomes including violence (fights, bullying, victimization), mental health (anxiety, referrals for mental health services) and school climate. The research team is also conducting a process evaluation and a cost-benefit analysis.

In the first two years of the study, we have implemented Mental Health First Aid and Restorative Justice interventions in ten schools. This has involved training school teachers, staff and administrators in both interventions. Early reports suggest the interventions, particularly the Restorative Justice intervention, have been well received. One project manager reported that students enjoy using the model of the talking circles, and often ask their teacher to initiate a circle. Circles are not limited to addressing conflict, and students are responding positively to the opportunity to gather with their peers and share about their daily concerns and learnings at school.

Current and future activities

The study team is now training the three-person leadership teams (3PLT) in CPTED, with the goal of assessing the physical environment at each of the ten intervention schools in early 2019. The evaluation team is monitoring school climate, how much each method is used, and the quality and comprehensiveness of program implementations. This involves surveying teachers, tracking school reports, meeting with the school leadership teams and meeting with the teachers implementing the interventions.

Next steps of the project include booster training for the 3PLT and school staff in Restorative Justice and Mental Health First Aid. In each case, implementers are hoping to ensure broad exposure to training for all 4th-6th grade teachers and staff to encourage strong implementation across treatment schools. Following CPTED assessments, each treatment school will also receive a grant to invest in physical improvements to their buildings to address concerns raised through the assessments. The goal is to include a variety of stakeholders (staff, students, parents, experts) to identify cost-effective ways to improve physical safety.

Project Page: Addressing Mental Health and School Safety