Every student should have the right to feel physically and emotionally safe when they are at school. Yet research indicates that nearly one-fifth of all high school students report being bullied at school or online, and this percentage has remained steady in recent years. The results of this type of victimization range from absenteeism to suicidal ideation, self-injury, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and sometimes even violent revenge-driven behavior at school. Peer victimization based on gender, race, and sexual orientation can also be linked to retaliatory violence.
Students often share information about their violent intentions at school with their peers, but their peers can be reluctant to share what they hear about these violent intentions with teachers or school administrators.
Based on this premise, a group of NIJ-funded researchers from Trifoia, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Oregon created a project called SOARS (Student Ownership, Accountability, and Responsibility for School Safety) to address school safety. their goal was to create a student-centered and technology-driven comprehensive school safety framework to promote students’ ability to communicate violent intentions to the school before they occur, take a non-punitive approach to school discipline, foster active participation of students to resolve conflict, and prevent peer victimization from re-occurring. Given that the project was focused on high school students, the researchers placed a strong emphasis on student agency, beginning at the point of conceptualization.
SOARS Project Framework: App Development and Testing
The SOARS school safety project consisted of four phases of implementation:
- Phase 1: Convening of focus groups consisting of high school students, personnel, and parents to solicit perceptions of success associated with school safety practices, as well as challenges.
- Phase 2: Assessment of prototypes of the SOARS framework components. Based on feedback from phase 1, the researchers developed:
- The Advocatr, a mobile app used to report both positive and negative student behaviors. See “Who Can Use the Advocatr App?”
- A teacher-delivered, nine-week curriculum on school safety.
- Informational briefs for school personnel to aid them in supporting students.
- Guidelines for a student-led, school-wide safety campaign to raise awareness.
- Phase 3: Feasibility test of the mobile app and accompanying curriculum with the teachers and students in the classroom.
- Phase 4: Pilot test conducted within four high schools (two intervention and two control) to test the effectiveness of the entire framework.
Along with the implementation of the mobile app, schools assigned to the intervention condition launched student-driven campaigns for pro-social behavior. The students focused on reinforcing and rewarding positive behaviors by recognizing peers for acts of kindness and meeting with school personnel to discuss school climate and how it could be improved.
Between each phase, the researchers revised and adapted the framework based on feedback from the study participants. For instance, in one iteration, the teachers asked for the curriculum to be shortened because the students desired more time to share and discuss information.
Results Indicate Improved Student Perceptions of School Safety
The researchers recruited students, school personnel, and parents from two schools in 2017 and 2018 to participate in the intervention.
Over the course of the study period, the students using the Advocatr app reported statistically significant improvements in students’ perceptions of personal safety and lower levels of disruptive behaviors in their school. In addition, the student-led pro-social behavior reinforcement campaigns were generally well received. The researchers did not expect for these efforts to be as successful as they were, given that these types of groups are generally more readily accepted by younger students rather than high school students.
However, surveys of teachers at the intervention schools revealed no statistically significant differences in their perceptions of student behavior, nor in levels of delinquency, bullying, and peer victimization compared to the control condition schools.
Covid Pandemic Shuttered Schools
During the pilot testing phase of the project, the 2019-2020 school year was affected by school closures related to the Covid-19 pandemic. All schools in the study (intervention and control) were affected by the closures. Removal of students from the classroom to remote learning increased stress levels and disengaged many students. Therefore, only data from the fall of the 2019 school year were used, which may have influenced the study’s findings.
Student Empowerment and Local Engagement Tool
Moving forward, the researchers recommend emphasizing the enablement of students’ voices and use of restorative conflict resolution when designing and implementing a comprehensive school safety framework at the high school level. Their foundational research cautions that the “anti-snitching” culture runs very deep at the high school level and affects students’ willingness to report other students’ actions.
The development of the Advocatr mobile app helps address this culture in two ways: 1) it keeps reports local, where they can be addressed (as opposed to state tip lines that notify authorities) and 2) it improves school climate and puts the emphasis on prosocial behaviors, because students can report both positive and negative behaviors. They encourage future research on “snitching” as a barrier to reporting.
The SOARS framework provides a reporting tool that is cohesive, coupled with a curriculum that is meant to build relationships by noticing and promoting pro-social behaviors. The authors note, “strong and trusting relationships are fundamental to students’ willingness to share such critical safety information.” The research suggests that the willingness of students to report negative behaviors is highly dependent on the quality of the relationship they have with teachers and on the school personnel’s ability to respond in a non-punitive manner deemed appropriate by students. A two-pronged approach, merging student access to the Advocatr with teacher access to restorative training to promote students’ willingness to report safety concerns, could be a successful solution.
Who Can Use the Advocatr App
The Advocatr mobile app is intended to be used as a component of SOARS, the school-wide safety framework, which also includes an accompanying classroom curriculum, informational videos, and student leadership materials to support student-led safety campaigns.
More information on the mobile app and accompanying information may be found at http://advocatr.org. Development is still underway, so it is not yet available for public use.
About This Article
The work described in this article was supported by NIJ award number 2015-MU-MU-K003, awarded to IRIS Media Inc.
This article is based on the grantee report “Project SOARS (Student Ownership, Accountability, and Responsibility for School Safety” (pdf, 49 pages), by Claudia G. Vincent, Ph.D., University of Oregon, Hill Walker, Ph.D., University of Oregon, Dorothy Espelage, Ph.D. , University of North Carolina, Alberto Valido, University of North Carolina, Christopher Murray, Ph.D., University of Oregon, Brion Marquez, University of Oregon, Rita Svanks, University of Oregon, and Jordan Pennefather, Ph.D., Trifoia.
[note 1] L. Kann et al. (2018). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States 2017. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 67 (8), 1-114.