Public Release: 

School violence prevention project to focus on mobile apps, peer dynamics

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In a project funded by the National Institute of Justice, experts on youth violence, bullying and school climate issues in Illinois and Oregon are teaming up to develop a comprehensive school safety intervention that will use mobile apps and high school youths as key change agents in preventing school violence.

Project SOAR - which stands for Student Ownership, Accountability and Responsibility - is intended to promote student involvement in school safety, utilize their knowledge of peer dynamics to prevent victimization, and apply restorative justice measures.

The $1.6 million project is a component of a larger $5.6 million award from the Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice to IRIS Educational Media, a behavioral research and development firm in Eugene, Oregon, that will house and administer the project.

Project SOAR is driven by recent research that indicates violent behavior by some students is provoked by prolonged victimization and the desire for revenge.

Student buy-in is essential to proactively addressing threats to school safety because youths are often the most knowledgeable sources of information about potentially violent behavior among their peers, according to co-principal investigators, University of Illinois educational psychologist Dorothy Espelage and Claudia Vincent, a research associate at IRIS Educational Media.

Espelage holds appointments as the Hardie Scholar and the Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Education at Illinois. She is a nationally recognized expert on bullying, sexual harassment, homophobic teasing, and dating and gang violence.

Vincent's research focuses on racial, ethnic and gender issues and their relations with students' perceptions of school climate and disciplinary fairness.

"To date, approaches to promoting school safety at the high school level have been less successful than efforts in kindergarten through eighth grade settings," Espelage said.

"Scholars have argued for greater involvement of youths working closely with school staff to promote restorative practices and to consider how technology can promote school safety. To this aim, Project SOAR takes a comprehensive approach to school safety in local high schools through working with youths to give them a voice in developing the project's components."

"Experts agree that student engagement is important to promote school safety and that restorative practices can promote positive and protective relationships between students and teachers as well as among peers," Vincent said. "With students' increasing reliance on mobile technology to interact with each other, Project SOAR proposes to develop a school safety framework that offers students technology-based opportunities to make their voices heard and actively contribute to their school's safety within a restorative environment."

The intervention will comprise several Web-based, mobile technology applications, including a tip line with embedded training for students; online school safety and behavioral assessments for completion by students, parents and teachers; and an online training component on team-based, restorative problem solving for teachers.

A behavior support team at each school will coordinate implementation and review the tip-line data monthly. When behaviors of concern are reported, the teams will work with selected students to plan and conduct restorative justice interventions that promote dialogue, understanding and cooperative problem-solving among the affected parties.

English teachers at each school will lead students in developing a school safety campaign, which may involve youths in activities such as creating posters or videos, or designing presentations to parents or other community stakeholders.

Collaborating with Espelage and Vincent on the project are University of Oregon scholars Hill Walker, founder and co-director of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior; and Christopher Murray, head of the special education and clinical sciences department.

Walker's research has focused on interventions that detect at-risk behavior among marginalized students, and Murray is interested in the positive adjustment of students exposed to high levels of stress and school-based practices that enhance social support in low-income environments.

Brion Marquez and Jorden Pennefather, chief development officer and methodologist, respectively, at IRIS Educational Media, will be responsible for development and outcome evaluation on the project, set to begin in January 2016.

The intervention will be implemented and tested with 4,000 students at high schools in central Illinois and Springfield, Oregon, beginning in 2019.

Brian Megert, special programs director of the Springfield School District, also will participate in the project.

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