The University of Missouri (MU) will use a $2 million grant from the Department of Justice (DoJ) to help schools identify and avoid threats that students or others may make on school grounds involving potential harm to themselves or others.

For the project, MU researchers will partner with up to 26 rural school districts throughout the state and connect to the schools’ Wi-Fi servers to monitor online activity for threatening language or images. MU said the project will be fully implemented by fall 2023.

“If a potential threat is captured through videos, text messages, emails or social media posts, the school would be alerted so potential assessments and interventions can happen to avoid anyone harming themselves or others,” said Keith Herman, the grant’s primary investigator and a professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development. “The other key component of this is creating threat assessment teams, which could include school principals, teachers, school resource officers, school psychologists, counselors, social workers and law enforcement individuals, as we will be training them on how to respond and intervene.”

In a press release, MU detailed how different types of threats would be handled. For threats involving harm to the individual making the threat, an evidence-based approach called the Columbia Protocol will be used as it provides a systematic way for the threat assessment teams to talk with individuals of interest to determine the level of risk and best practices for interventions to avoid self-harm.

For potential threats to others, another evidence-based approach developed at the University of Virginia will be utilized. The approach involves the threat assessment team discussing step-by-step processes for how best to respond, including possible involvement from local law enforcement members.

“Rural schools tend to have less resources in these areas, and we have heard from many rural Missouri school districts that they currently don’t have these threat assessment teams and systematic procedures in place. So we want to help implement these resources to support their schools and communities,” Herman said.

“Obviously there has been an increased spotlight on recent school shootings, and we also know many students have been struggling throughout the pandemic with mental health concerns,” he said. “So hopefully the combination of the technology and the trainings will make schools safer, and those who work in the schools will feel more confident in responding and intervening when threats arise.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs