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Pennsylvania School Districts Use BJA STOP Funding to Erase School Violence through Social-emotional Learning

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One thing that officials with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) learned is that it’s never too early in life to provide students and teachers with the tools and resources to build friendships, manage emotions, solve problems, and face peer pressure in both school and their community.

Recognizing that young students today are facing unprecedented levels of adverse childhood experiences — such as stress, anger, and anxiety — HHS found that these circumstances made for a difficult environment for students to learn and grow. By teaching students and teachers in grades K through 5th self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness, kids learned to regulate and cope with their emotions.

This strategy offers all the ingredients necessary to not only help prevent acts of violence and create a safe and positive school environment today, but also teaches skills that children can use later in life to be successful.

Thanks to a Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence grant, educators in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, have successfully implemented a teacher-led social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies program and curriculum known as Second Step for students in grades K through 5th in 8 of their 21 school districts.

Second Step is an evidence-based SEL program aimed at reducing violence and encouraging academic success in schools through the teaching of social and emotional skills. According to a study conducted by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, Second Step “has been shown to reduce physical aggression in middle school youth within a one-year period.”

“We know from the data we collected from the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment Mini [a social-emotional competency test], social-emotional learning from Second Step is totally worth the return on investment. It results in better health outcomes, better attendance, and higher GPA,” explained Katie Kucz, the prevention coordinator of the Montgomery County Department of HHS. “Second Step is really such an awesome program that has long-term benefits in addition to short-term benefits in the classroom.”

Kucz noted that SEL is for all students in the classroom and not just those who might be struggling.

“We thought that all students could benefit from SEL and Second Step,” said Kucz. “We know through research if kids have these SEL skills, they are less likely to see problem behaviors in the classroom and have negative health outcomes later in life. So far, the reaction from students, teachers, and parents has been super positive.”

“The idea behind STOP," added David Adams, BJA senior policy advisor for the STOP Program, “is to be able to train students and staff to be able to recognize the signs that someone is in a crisis because maybe they are being bullied or perhaps something is going on at home, or something that we are not aware of, and then prevent an act of violence.

“Montgomery County is a good example of a STOP grantee who is very forward thinking in being able to deal with the challenges of the COVID virus by successfully implementing a virtual type of school training program that encompasses everything from antibullying to mental health awareness and social-emotional learning.”

Four weeks after the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Congress passed the STOP School Violence Act of 2018, which annually appropriates $75 million for the implementation of programs designed to stop school violence. Through BJA, STOP grants are annually awarded to programs that train school personnel and educate students to prevent student violence and/or develop and implement multidisciplinary threat assessment intervention teams. Grants are also awarded for the operation of technology solutions, such as anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence, including mobile telephone applications, hotlines, and websites.

“Applicants will apply to BJA to do one or more of those things,” noted Adams, who presently helps assist the approximately 300 grantees in the STOP Program. “We are now in the fourth round of STOP grants in 2021. States could apply for up to $2 million, and local governments and nonprofits could apply for up to $1 million to do one or more of those types of activities.”

Since 2019 Adams has been actively working to improve and streamline the application process to make it easier for programs to apply for a STOP grant.

“Schools tend to go to the U.S. Department of Education for school funding, and so they are not used to coming to the U.S. Department of Justice, and we handle grants differently,” said Adams. “So what we have done is simplified the process quite a bit, and that has allowed us to get many more applicants over the past few years. We want potential applicants to know we are continuing to look at ways to improve the program and make it as simple as possible for them to apply.”

Kucz said applying for a STOP grant now is a much easier process than in the past.

“Most people seem to shy away from federal grants like STOP on a school district level because they appear to be more daunting than it might seem,” said Kucz. “I appreciated the upgrade to the STOP grant application process because now everything is online. The process is pretty straightforward, and they make it clear in their Request for Proposal what it is that they are looking for and how they are going to score each of the sections.”

As Montgomery County moves into the third year of its teacher-led Second Step SEL program, Kucz is optimistic about the program’s strong foundation, positive results, opportunity for teachable moments, and future popularity with students and teachers.

"We know from the Pennsylvania Youth Survey that our early mental health trends should remain a priority. That is one of the reasons why we invested in SEL,” stressed Kucz regarding the program that now reaches between 12,000 and 15,000 students. “Having teachers embed SEL into their lessons and as part of their curriculum makes Second Step a more sustainable model for our school districts. We now have buy-in from the top down.

“We are all very grateful to have this funding source from BJA. Hopefully, other school districts around the country will be able to use this grant as well.”

For more information about STOP and how to apply, please visit the STOP School Violence Program section of our site.

Date Published: October 18, 2021