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University of Missouri to Help Rural Districts Flag Threats

Funded by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, the University of Missouri will connect to the Wi-Fi servers of 26 rural school districts, scan them for potential threats and prepare schools to respond.

Four young schoolchildren wearing backpacks and facemasks running towards the camera.
School safety continues to be paramount for U.S. districts, with no shortage of strategies by state and local organizations to meet would-be threats on campus. In the past year, for example, Oklahoma launched a statewide anonymous tip line for K-12 schools, Ohio allocated $100 million in grants for school safety, and the private sector announced a number of tech advances for campus security. In Missouri, a U.S. Department of Justice grant announced last week will connect 26 rural school districts with university resources for monitoring Wi-Fi servers for threatening language and images.

According to a news release, researchers at the University of Missouri will use the $2 million grant to connect to district Wi-Fi servers and scan for would-be threats in videos, texts, emails or social media posts by students or others on campuses. If a potentially harmful situation arises, the university would alert the school to assess and intervene. The university will connect with district servers by this fall and the start of the next academic year.

Additionally, according to Keith Herman, the grant’s primary investigator and professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development, creating threat assessment teams is a key element of the project. Herman said in the news release that the teams will include a combination of school principals, teachers, school resource officers, school psychologists, counselors, social workers and law enforcement individuals. Everyone on the assessment teams will be trained on how to respond to and intervene in situations, it said.

For instances where someone is making threats of suicide, the teams will utilize the Columbia Protocol, a decades-old set of conversation guidelines to figure out the validity of a threat and how to avoid any injuries, the release said. In a situation where someone is threatening others, the assessment team will use a step-by-step process created at the University of Virginia. Both methods are evidence-based approaches, the news release said. With rural schools tending to have less resources, Herman said this project is a way for larger organizations to lend a hand.

“We want to help implement these resources to support (rural) schools and communities,” Herman said in a public statement. “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.”