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Student Communication: Key to Preventing School Violence?

Last week’s attack at Ohio State reminded us that America’s schools and colleges face an ever-present possibility of violence.

It’s a week later, and officials and the public are still wondering if there were warning signs that could have prevented the attack. A look at the attacker’s Facebook page, for one, showed anti-American rhetoric that could have signaled his eventual aggression.

Many experts believe that one way to combat such violence is better communication—between students and counselors, students and administrators, and staff and parents.

But what about better communication among students themselves?

Kentucky’s Campbell County Schools, which sits 120 miles south of the Ohio State campus, will use a nearly $5 million grant to test whether strong student-to-student communication can stop violence before it happens.

Training peer brokers

The underlying premise of the Campbell County plan is that students will trust other students with important information more than they will trust adults.

“We know kids don’t want to go to adults with what’s going on,” Campbell County Schools Superintendent David Rust tells Cincinatti.com. And when violence occurs—in the form of self-harm, eating disorders, drug abuse, bullying, or attacks in school—“almost always there’s a kid who knew about it before it happens,” Rust says.

With this in mind, Campbell County Schools will partner with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to train 90 students to be peer brokers-or student intermediaries. The students will be trained to listen to and support fellow students, and to escalate warning signs to school officials.

The training will then extend to 1,000 students during the next four years. By the end of the initiative, nearly 1 in 5 Campbell County students will be trained to support their friends and peers.

“We will identify key peers necessary to mitigate the bystander effect, thus promoting social resiliency among those with whom they interact,” Connie Pohlgeers, Campbell County’s director of school improvement and community relations, tells Cincinatti.com.

The $4.9 million grant comes from the National Institute of Justice’s School Safety Initiative, which researches ways to prevent violence in schools. Most of the grant will cover the salaries of the researchers, counselors, and trainers needed to train and support the students.

Creating safe spaces

Campbell County Schools worked hard to secure the multimillion-dollar grant that will fund the initiative. But, the truth is, most school districts don’t have the resources to support an experiment like the peer brokers strategy.

Even with limited funds, there’s a lot you can do to help students communicate with one another and your schools safely—and help you stay ahead of student conversations and identify potential threats.

  1. Provide online forums or hotlines for students to vent concerns privately. The last thing a student wants to be is a tattletale. Give students a way to report issues without fear of embarrassment or ridicule from their peers.
  2. Encourage open, safe discussions in and outside of class. Students who are listened to and feel heard will be more empowered to address their—and their friends’—issues.
  3. Listen to the conversation on social media. Your students are constantly talking. Are you listening? Set up a social media listening station and track conversations for possible warning signs.
  4. Ask for feedback through a school survey. Give students another way to vent their frustrations by inviting anonymous feedback.

How are you encouraging students to engage with each other and help you identify threats? Tell us in the comments.

For more about how to make sure you’re ahead of potential violence, read How to stand up to threats against schools.