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To Help Schools Make Better Decisions About Safety, Johns Hopkins University Launches New Center

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Johns Hopkins University is creating a center to help educators deal with the increasing concerns over school safety and pressures from parents and legislators to put armed personnel and metal detectors in schools or know more about student well-being.

The Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, which officially launched earlier this month, will include new classes for those currently in the university's educator-preparation programs on how to create safe learning environments for students. It will also use new and existing research to inform policy debates on school safety and help educators, school systems and communities make better decisions about how to keep children safe.

University officials said the center is unique in that it takes a cross-disciplinary approach to school safety, and it will draw on experts and researchers from across the university—from the schools of education, public health, engineering, arts and sciences, and medicine.  

"All children deserve safe and healthy schools, and families deserve to know that their children are learning in safe and healthy environments," Christopher Morphew, the dean of the school of education at Johns Hopkins said in an interview with Education Week.  

"There is an urgent need to take on what's a really complex issue and to try to come at it with comprehensive, evidence-based solutions—and we don't think that is being done."

While conversations and policy decisions on school safety often hew toward visible and physical measures, Johns Hopkins University is hoping to move beyond that narrow focus and will emphasize other aspects that should be part of the debate, like bullying, school discipline, community engagement, and transportation.

"I've had many conversations with principals about safe schools, and when you ask them about safe schools they don't talk about bulletproof lunch trays or facial recognition ID," Morphew said. "They talk about trauma-informed teaching. They talk about the mental health of their students and their staff. They talk about transportation issues—and that's what they spend their time on day-to-day. 

"We need to create a center that gives them better evidence-based tools to make good decisions about these things," Morphew continued, "many of which, or most of which, they have not been trained on in their principal-preparation [or] counselor-preparation programs."

Changing Preparation to Address School Safety Needs

Educator preparation programs often offer a cursory introduction to school safety. Principals, for example, may review their legal responsibilities as school leaders, while counselors take courses in mental health and teacher-candidates have courses in social-emotional learning and restorative practices.

The new center's programming will address this mismatch between preparation and real-world needs. Beginning this fall, school safety will be incorporated in core courses in teacher, counselor, and administrator preparation programs.

The center will also launch a lecture and discussion series on school safety, drawing on experts across disciplines. This fall's lecture series will include discussions of what constitutes a safe and healthy school, how student stress affects how students learn, long-term impacts of school violence on child and youth development, how to use restorative practices to reduce conflict, and best practices around choosing technology that supports safe and healthy schools.

Students who complete the core courses with the safety component and participate in the discussions will get a formal notation on their transcripts denoting that they had taken the school safety series.

And the center will launch a micro-credentialing program next spring that will allow educators across the country to tap into the center's school safety offerings. The school of education ultimately hopes to launch the courses as a MOOC  series. While participants will have to pay to access the micro-credentialing courses, the MOOCs will be free when they are up and running, school officials said.  

"This is an important venture because schools are evolving, and the needs of our schools are evolving," said Annette C. Anderson, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, who will lead the academic component of the center's work. "And so our academic programming is also evolving to try to meet the needs of  21st century schools."

"Ten years ago, some of these topics were not front of mind for many people in the field," Anderson continued. "Now we are seeing that we need to address this. We need to consider how to provide this information to our target audience. It's a great challenge to have in front of us. It's going to call for some very smart people to be very creative. I think that we are stepping up to the challenge at Hopkins."

Bombarded With School Safety Technology, But Lacking Research

School safety has dominated the K-12 conversation since last year's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead.

Johns Hopkins University announced the center's launch a day before another American school was visited by gun violence. Police say two students opened fire on their schoolmates at a K-12 charter school in Highlands Ranch, Colo., killing one student who was just days away from graduating and injuring eight others.

The shooting was the 12th so far this year and the largest-scale gun violence incident in a school in 2019, based on Education Week's school shooting tracker.

In addition to preparing educators on how to create safe, nurturing school environments, the center will also conduct research or use existing research conducted in other fields to help educators make better decisions. Research will be concentrated in three primary areas: health and wellness, school and community engagement, and school security and technology. Health and wellness will encompass students' mental, physical, and social-emotional health.

Prof. John Links, whose work has included creating a computational model that can predict how communities function normally and how they are likely to respond after disasters (like hurricanes and earthquakes) is planning on applying that research and thinking to school safety.

That kind of approach could help schools create safer learning environments and make better decisions about where to direct financial resources both before and after a tragedy, said Links, a professor of public health, medicine, education, engineering, and business.

He drew an analogy to way some communities used the federal funds they received from the Homeland Security Department after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Some bought things like fire trucks, which Links argued was a good use of the money because those communities were more likely to respond to a fire than to a terrorist attack.

In the same way, a school may be better off spending school safety grants on basic school functions like buying books for the library or hiring a counselor rather than purchasing a metal detector or paying for an armed guard, he said.

But school officials are making those decisions largely in the absence of real data, and using the computational model to build a baseline of how the school normally functions and the factors that will likely help it recover after a safety incident could be helpful in the future, Links said. 

The idea of sinking huge sums of  "money into things like security technology when you don't even know if the school is functioning properly day-to-day, is crazy," Links said. "If I want to best position a school to be a safe and healthy school and that school isn't a good school to begin with, I don't want to spend one nickel on things like security technology, active-shooter drills, and training, etcetera, until I've brought the baseline functioning and performance of that school up to some reasonable level. It's money misspent."

Sheldon Greenberg, an education professor at Johns Hopkins who is a former police officer, said the center could bring some coherence to the issue of school safety, where different sectors approach the problem from their siloed perspectives. 

The university's Applied Physics Laboratory conducted one of the largest reviews of school safety technology on the market for the Department of Justice, and Greenberg is hoping to break down that mammoth document into smaller easy- to-understand guides for district leaders, who are often make purchasing decisions based on research conducted by vendors. 

There are a host of questions for district and school leaders to consider, he said. There's a lot of chatter about hiring police officers for schools, but departments are also having trouble recruiting police officers, he said. And there are also questions around who should be in charge of selecting the police officers who will work in schools, the right backgrounds for such police officers, how to evaluate the effectiveness of school resource officers, and how adding law enforcement officers in schools contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.

"We don't have the luxury of time to bring order to the disorder of the school safety movement and industry," Greenberg said. "We don't know what the long-term adverse effects are [on students] based on some of the things that we are doing. And that's really critical. We can't keep doing more of the same, because this has gone on since Columbine and more of the same isn't working."

Caption: Christopher Morphew, dean of the school of education at Johns Hopkins University, speaks at the Education Writers Associations conference in Baltimore on Monday, May 6, 2019. Jim Burger/Homewood Photography

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