Gun violence may be the most discussed topic surrounding school safety, but it is by no means the only one. Bullying, school climate, and mental health affect students across the country, and are some of the many other issues that NIJ researches. Mary Poulin Carlton, an NIJ social science analyst, joins host Paul Haskins to discuss these and other important school safety issues.
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PAUL HASKINS: Welcome everyone. I’m Paul Haskins, a Senior Writer at the National Institute of Justice, and I’m your host for today’s show. I’m speaking with Mary Poulin Carlton on the subject of school safety for research support of NIJ. Mary is a Social Scientist with NIJ and a resident expert on the subject of school safety research. She manages the institute’s school safety research portfolio. Thank you for being with us here today, Mary. First, why is school safety research so important to NIJ?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Thank you, Paul. So NIJ’s research on school safety reflects our larger concerns related to crime prevention and violence reduction. Our research in this area reflects the nation’s commitment improving school safety and preventing violence. So, shootings at schools like Sandy Hook Elementary and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, represent one very visible and terrible dimension of school violence. But every day in our schools, student conflicts, bullying, and other threats to the physical and emotional well-being of students can make schools unsafe for students, as well as staff. And we know that schools can and should be places that foster learning. So, NIJ’s been working with our research partners to advance our knowledge on what causes school violence and what works to keep schools and students safe so that we can help schools meet their mission. It’s an issue that really touches every school, and it represents a complex challenge for all the stakeholders.
PAUL HASKINS: So, it’s such an important issue across our country. Mary, what is the scope of NIJ’s involvement for school safety research?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Well, so the federal commitment to school safety has been quite robust. For NIJ, support of school safety research has represented a sizable part of the institute’s working budget. We’ve invested more than $200,000,000 in K to 12 School Safety Research in 2014, and that’s really an unprecedented investment. Much of this work has been funded by large congressional appropriations to NIJ via both the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative and now the STOP School Violence Act. So, with that commitment, NIJ is a lead agency in defining and directing research on school safety.
PAUL HASKINS: So that sounds like a huge commitment by NIJ in this area. Mary, could you give me a few examples of subject matter areas covered by grants supported by NIJ?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Sure. So just in 2014, NIJ has made about a hundred awards addressing school safety, and these awards cover many different topics. Some examples are: bullying, looking at anti-bullying prevention programs; the causes and consequences of school violence; examining the roles of school resource officers and law enforcement at schools; looking at threat assessments and tip lines; examining school climate; learning more about alternatives to traditional school discipline; examining student trauma and mental health issues that they might bring with them to school; looking at school security practices; and understanding how to implement those practices that we have come to learn that work or are evidence-based.
PAUL HASKINS: Very interesting, Mary. That really covers quite a bit of ground. Generally speaking, what does the research tell us about what works, in terms of school safety policy and practice solutions?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Well, to start with, we know that not all schools and communities are the same. They serve students of different ages and backgrounds, and the communities therein vary as well. So there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to improving school safety. The approach should be comprehensive and include a framework that’s adaptable to a school’s circumstances and needs. And NIJ’s research has helped us identify the key elements of a comprehensive framework.
PAUL HASKINS: Great. So, there’s no single approach to school safety and no single solution. But are there certain core elements of the school safety research framework?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Yeah, that’s right, Paul. So NIJ’s comprehensive school safety framework consists of three foundational elements: physical safety, school climate, and student behavior. They’re three different things but they’re interconnected. So, how schools choose to improve the physical safety of the school to keep it free from intruders, that can, for example, impact the school’s climate, or feelings that students have about the school environment. And that’s important because it may impact students’ academic success. Another example is attending to the traumas that students have faced outside the school may improve their behavior at school and, therefore, the physical safety of other students or teachers at the school.
PAUL HASKINS: Very interesting. So just to drill down a bit on those terms, does physical safety refer to safety of students inside their school buildings?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Yes, so it includes approaches to keep those who are supposed to be in the school, safe from others who also belong in the school, but it--physical safety is also about keeping people out of the school who might enter and cause harm to those in the school. So, thinking a little bit further, when we look at inside the school, we’re thinking about approaches like using a threat assessment to identify students who might be likely to harm or attack other students. We’re also interested in learning about how to keep school safe from those what--we think of as external threats using things like perimeter security, or helping schools coordinate with local law enforcement to learn quickly about problems going on outside the school that may impact the school itself.
PAUL HASKINS: And the second element of school safety that you mentioned is school climate. Can you elaborate a little bit on the meaning of that term?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Sure. So, school climate is very important. But the term can be misunderstood. So, it’s really getting at the way people perceive or experience the school’s environment. And that includes the students, the faculty, the parents, and others at the school. So, in essence, what we’re focused on is creating a school that has a positive school climate or the conditions that are needed for learning. And that puts a school in a position to create an environment that also facilitates the physical safety of students and their emotional safety.
PAUL HASKINS: And Mary, what about the third piece of school safety: student behavior?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Well, student behavior relates to the strategies and practices that promote how we want students to act at school, and how to respond to students who act in an undesirable way. So NIJ studies have examined a number of programs, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, or PBIS; mental health First Training for Law Enforcement at school; restorative justice or sometimes called restorative practices, as well as programs that incorporate multiple strategies to address student behavior.
PAUL HASKINS: Great. This is more of a big picture question. I know much of the research supported by NIJ focuses on development of and testing practices and programs. But I understand school safety portfolio goes a step further. Can you explain that, please?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Sure. Well we have a number of studies where researchers are closely engaged with educators and other stakeholders to better understand what it really takes to implement both new and evidence-based school safety strategies. We’ve even been able to fund implementation of various strategies to make it easier for researchers and practitioners and educators to work together. So, understanding how to implement something is just as important as understanding whether it works because we’ve learned from other research that even the best programs can fail if they aren’t implemented well.
PAUL HASKINS: So that certainly makes sense. I noted another piece of research focused on the importance of school readiness. That is being ready and willing to accept new programming in order to improve school safety. Mary, could you provide some context on the readiness issue?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Yes. So, we really can’t overstate the importance of a school being ready to implement school safety programming. It goes to the question of what must schools do to position themselves to implement various programs and practices. We know that real changes takes time and thought, and it can be challenging for the school or the school system. We know that it takes a great deal of commitment and hard work to make schools a safer place. And we’re starting to learn about solutions for those who are ready to make those changes.
PAUL HASKINS: Great. Thank you. Well, I know that the school safety subject is complex enough, but then you add the COVID-19 pandemic to the mix. What are the pandemic’s implications for research needs out at the schools?
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Yes, so COVID has had a major impact on student wellbeing, and there’s a couple areas that are a significant concern. So first, we’re wondering about how remote learning has impacted students’ social and emotional needs. There are a lot of concerns that the isolation that students have experienced due to COVID has had a negative impact on them. And then relatedly, we’re wondering about how return to school for in-person learning might play a role here. We know that all students and teachers have been impacted and many have likely been traumatized by the pandemic. But we really aren’t sure how all of this is going to influence student behavior. For example, will students be more withdrawn from others? Will they act out more? We’re really starting to ask these questions, and we don’t quite know yet. And, of course, there are ongoing safety concerns related to the transmission of COVID-19 at school.
PAUL HASKINS: Mary, thank you very much. You’ve covered quite a bit of ground of NIJ’s research portfolio and school safety. This is Paul Haskins, a Senior Writer for NIJ and you’ve been listening to the podcast featuring Mary Poulin Carlton, NIJ’s resident expert in the very active field of the school safety research. Mary, thanks again for sharing your time and expert insights, and we look forward to learning the results of some of these studies down the road.
MARY POULIN CARLTON: Thank you, Paul. It’s been my pleasure.
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