New project aims to increase school safety

Shelby County Schools in Tennessee to implement programming while RTI International will evaluate them


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC—RTI International has partnered with Shelby County Schools—the largest school district in Tennessee and the 22nd largest in the United States—on a project designed to increase safety in schools.

The project is part of the National Institute of Justice’s Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, an initiative to increase the safety of schools and students nationwide through rigorous research that produces practical knowledge.

RTI and Shelby County Schools have partnered for work under Category 1 of the initiative, “Developing Knowledge About What Works to Make Schools Safe,” which provides funding to support demonstrations and evaluations of programs, practices, policies, and strategies designed to enhance school and student safety. Planning for the four-year project will begin in January, with implementation to begin at the start of the next school year, in August 2017.

“Once we determine which strategies are the most effective, we will focus on disseminating our findings to the education, research and policy communities,” said Stephanie Hawkins, Ph.D., a senior research clinical psychologist at RTI and the project director. “We look forward to providing results that will substantially increase the field’s understanding of what works to make schools safe.”

The RTI/Shelby County Schools team will begin work in 2017 to evaluate the implementation, outcomes, and cost-effectiveness of three types of school safety strategies focused on 24 middle schools:

  1. Middle school treatment as usual, where no new programs are introduced
  2. Student-focused programs, which focus on creating pathways to success for students, and include a suspension diversion program and gang prevention/intervention
  3. Comprehensive programs, which include the student-focused programs as well as additional strategies, such as police officer presence on the routes kids travel to and from school, staff training on youth mental health first aid, and data sharing with other school district departments and local partners.

Each of the 24 middle schools selected to be a part of the study will be randomly assigned one of the three strategies above. Using this school-randomized design will help determine the effectiveness of each strategy, and if there is a difference between the three. Shelby County Schools will be responsible for implementing the programming, and RTI will be responsible for collecting data and evaluating the programs.

The anticipated outcomes associated with the student-focused programs include reductions in school disciplinary violations, violence, aggression, and gang-related behaviors and positive changes in their outlook to life, and attachment to school. The anticipated outcomes associated with the comprehensive program include school climate, perceptions of school safety, perceptions of gangs at school, and enhanced collaboration and communication.

“We owe it to the children in this county to ensure that their learning environments are safe and that they have a fair chance for academic success,” Hawkins said.