Dr. Dorothy Espelage and Company Receive $1 Million Grant to Improve School Safety Officers’ Responses to Student Violence

By Rachel Wayne, CLAS Office of Communications

Faculty in UF’s Department of Psychology and the Lastinger Center for Learning have received a $1 million NIJ grant to implement a 36-month pilot anti-violence program for School Resource Officers (SROs) in Miami-Dade Public Schools. The program incorporates contemporary research in child development, bullying, and intervention techniques to offer a culturally competent, restorative approach to youth violence.

Bullying and other interpersonal violence are pervasive problems in schools, and previous approaches, such as zero-tolerance and penal policies, have not been backed up by research. UF psychologist Dorothy Espelage, the principal investigator of the project, studies bullying in the context of adolescent social navigations and school politics of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. To wit, the project seeks to add LGBTQ sensitivity and an understanding of social-emotional learning to SROs’ toolkit.

The co-PIs are Philip Poekert and Walter Leite of the College of Education. Poekert is the assistant director of the UF Lastinger Center for Learning, the College of Education’s incubator for creating education-system innovations that transform teaching and learning. Upon arriving at UF, Poekert’s decade of work in Miami-Dade Public Schools continued a relationship with the Center that helped support the project development. Poekert and Leite bring an understanding of adult learning to the project, noting that professional development programs often use a didactic, decontextualized approach that is less effective than daily, workplace-oriented learning. These tenets will be fulfilled by the Center’s coaching approach. Additionally, a “blended” online/in-person program will make the program more efficient than typical professional development.

Because many bullies are also victims of bullying, a trauma-informed approach, already used by SROs, can be enhanced by the Restorative Problem Solving (RPS) framework, which encourages dialogue among all parties rather than relying upon a juvenile justice or delinquency system, which research has shown to disproportionately punish students in marginalized groups. To that end, participating SROs will take self-assessments of intercultural sensitivity, LGBTQ allyship, and implicit bias, as well as job efficacy and satisfaction. The program will also include tests on topics of adolescent development and trauma effects.

According to the grant, “Over the three-year grant period, the project will improve the practice of at least 140 SROs and, in turn, positively affect learning for over 133,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.” The researchers aim to develop a scalable program that can be offered to schools around the nation. “The diverse make-up of the Miami-Dade school district would make a successful outcome in this pilot SRO training project prime for a national rollout,” Poekert said.

The Lastinger Center is recognized nationwide for partnering with schools, school districts, philanthropies, state and national government groups, and the private sector to develop and test landmark learning models that transform teaching and learning and promote healthy child development.