The right support can bring about transformative change for schools and communities.
Going back to school can involve worries beyond whether students will like their teachers or who they will sit with at lunch. Many students, parents, and educators live with a steady undercurrent of anxiety about school safety.
With expert support, schools can work with their community to stop school violence before it starts.
A Community-Based Model for Change
The University of Colorado Boulder is home to the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV). One of CSPV’s key initiatives is the Safe Communities Safe Schools (SCSS) Model, which they developed after the Columbine school shooting in 1999. The SCSS Model provides schools with a comprehensive, actionable, team-supported plan individualized to each school’s safety needs. The Center works with school personnel to reassess and update school plans on an ongoing basis.
CSPV received a grant of almost $2 million through the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA) Students, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Grant Program. The funds are being used to train staff at 40 new schools on the SCSS Model.
The goal is to address key safety risk and protective factors that schools can influence, like school climate, and support the schools’ capacity "to understand and effectively implement evidence-based programs and strategies that are matched to their data-identified needs," says Dr. Beverly Kingston, CSPV Director and Senior Research Associate.
One School's Experience
Montview Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado, has experienced the SCSS program’s multiple benefits.
The SCSS team has “been phenomenal with us in developing and setting up systems of support from an asset-based framework,” says Montview Principal Joe Taylor.
“It’s just been amazing. I can’t say enough about the people who are supporting us.” — Joe Taylor, Principal, Montview Elementary School
According to Taylor, the work at Montview was preventive and not in response to a safety incident. It began when a member of the SCSS team reached out and said, “‘We’re doing this work through the University of Colorado Safe Schools, and we’d love for you to feel encouraged to apply.’”
This was a particularly welcome invitation for Taylor, a first-year principal at a new school. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Taylor, a lot of school systems and structures fell by the wayside so schools could develop the supports needed for students to be successful in an online learning environment. “All of the school’s energies, systems development, and progress monitoring went into that COVID response.”
Montview’s staff needed help developing systems of support for the students and the community. “Montview is a Title 1 school with a very proud community, but one that faces a number of challenges,” says Taylor. Those challenges include trauma impact and housing and food disparities. Addressing such challenges can have a huge effect on the school community, improving school safety and educational outcomes.
Laying the Groundwork With Data
Determining the strengths or assets a school already has in place is a critical first step in improving the school environment. Identifying those assets happens through an assessment, during which the school looks at its data to determine the needs of the students, the school, and the community and decides what the school could reasonably do to meet those needs.
"The data the team gathers includes information about different systems that impact school safety, and then we’re really intentional about selecting strategies that address those data-identified needs,” says Jody Witt, CSPV Director of Operations and Senior Professional Research Assistant. These systems could include anything from bullying prevention to how teachers respond to referrals about students with mental health concerns.
One way the SCSS team collects data is the Safety Systems Questionnaire, a comprehensive survey given to all students and staff. The questionnaire has sections that address elements of school safety, such as school culture, climate, community, information sharing, bystander response reporting, threat assessment, and community partnerships, says Witt. The SCSS team also uses a readiness assessment that measures school assets, such as the motivation and capacity of the people at the school to implement changes.
Read the sidebar, "Assessing School Climate," for more details.
With that data, the school can identify its strengths, needs, and where some of the gaps are.
“The challenge is helping schools prioritize what to address first, so we provide training and technical assistance and coaching in those main priority areas.” — Jody Witt, CSPV Director of Operations and Senior Professional Research Assistant
From Assets to Action
At Montview, the SCSS team helped school stakeholders identify “what already existed in our school and community and what we could build on,” says Taylor. The school looked at its existing partnerships and the strengths those partners could contribute to the school.
The next step was identifying what was missing. In Montview’s case, that meant developing processes to address the needs of a Title 1 school community, where socioeconomic challenges and trauma impact affect students’ mental health and behavior.
The SCSS team helped Montview build an asset-based plan to address the needs of students with behavioral health issues, which included adding teacher training to identify and appropriately respond to behavioral “red flags” and an intervention process guided by a multidisciplinary team to address those behaviors. The school was able to establish trauma-informed practices and bullying prevention programs with guidance from the Safe Schools team. “The approach was always inquiry based,” says Taylor, with the team asking, “What do you need and what would that look like?”
Montview’s support framework is multifaceted and organized in tiered phases, known as a multitiered system of supports (MTSS). Phase I of the school’s MTSS addresses data collected through the Safety Systems Questionnaire. From that data, Montview developed support plans for school safety to accommodate all students, with specific interventions for students needing the most help, including those with mental health issues.
The program pairs support for students with training for teachers in areas related to a safe school environment, including social-emotional learning programs, trauma-informed practice, restorative practices, and bullying prevention. “We think about how to imbed this within the culture and how this training can be sustained,” says Witt.
The result: Montview was successful in creating all the academic, behavioral, and mental health assistance in Phase I of its MTSS. Phase II development is underway. Building on the systems already in place, Montview will go deeper into providing professional learning and looking at what the school is doing successfully and what “we need to do differently to better create a safe, nurturing culture and climate,” says Taylor. “This is so critical to diminish the barriers that prevent opportunity.”
Planning for the Future
The SCSS Model is driven by the school community in partnership with families and students. There is shared decision-making, so the process is sustainable; even if the leadership at the school changes, the system will stay in place. “We really try to be intentional about the power dynamics and about trying to create processes that are engaging for everyone,” says Kingston.
“I have been very dedicated to not speaking during the meetings and letting our community members and stakeholders drive the process," says Taylor. "I’m always there when an opinion’s needed, but I am just a part of the professional community, and I don’t lead the meetings. It’s driven by our stakeholders.”
The transformative benefits are obvious already. Montview Elementary is well on the way to creating a school that is a “hub of support for our extended community and our families,” says Taylor.
Building a sustainable culture of school safety is part of the SCSS Model’s DNA. “We think about the SCSS Model as a marathon and not a sprint,” says Kingston. “Day one, we’re thinking about sustainability and how we integrate these practices into a school community ongoing, because it has to be done that way. So this is all about embedding those systems into all aspects of the school.”
Just as each school adopting the SCSS Model is a hub for its community, CSPV hopes that these schools in Colorado will be a hub for school innovation that spreads beyond the state. The goal is to share as much as they can, says Kingston.
“We’re looking at how we can support not only Colorado schools but, as appropriate, schools across the nation.” — Dr. Beverly Kingston, CSPV Director and Senior Research Associate
“What we know from research is that there is so much we can be doing that is not expensive to help make our schools safer,” says Kingston. “A lot of this has to do with translating research to practice, but also, the things that we’re seeing in practice that are just amazing, we want to translate into research. I just want to say there’s so much hope. That’s what I really want to leave as a big takeaway.”
- Visit the CSPV website for more information on the program and resources it offers.
- Learn more about CSPV’s Safe Communities Safe Schools Model.
- Read “Building Schools’ Readiness to Implement a Comprehensive Approach," an article by Dr. Kingston and colleagues.