Missouri rural schools will be able to monitor Wi-Fi, develop safety plans with $2M grant

(The Center Square) – Twenty-six rural Missouri school districts will be able to better monitor Wi-Fi servers for threats and other safety issues through a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

University of Missouri researchers will work with SlateXP, a software company based in Georgia, to install and implement a plan by this fall to identify and avert threats by students or others on school grounds involving potential harm to themselves or others.

The grant is part of the U.S. Justice Department’s $125 million grant program created in the Students, Teachers and Officers Preventing School Violence Act in 2018. Keith Herman, the grant’s primary investigator and a professor in the University of Missouri College of Education and Human Development, said the software company approached the university for assistance in introducing the program to rural schools.

“They wanted to partner with a group like ours who could supplement what they were doing with technology and a threat assessment team and suicide protocols,” Herman said in an interview with The Center Square. “They’re interested in evaluation to see how schools are receiving the program and how they could continue to improve it.”

Herman said the university’s relationship with the Missouri Association for Rural School Education helped complete some preliminary research. It found rural schools struggle with detection and assessment of technology threats and don’t have threat assessment teams or clear protocols to follow if a threat is detected. The university recommends guidelines for creating threat assessment teams, including the building principal, special education teachers, a psychologist or school counselor and one or more teachers. A partnership with law enforcement also is encouraged.

“It’s not enough just to have a system that detects threats,” Herman said. “That’s important, but then having a solid protocol where everybody knows exactly what’s going to happen when we detect a threat and having confidence to carry out the protocol is important. Both of those components are necessary to create a safe environment.”

A protocol developed at the University of Virginia will be used by a threat assessment team when dealing with potential threats to harm others. Another protocol will be implemented for teams to address threats involving suicide.

Isolation from remote learning and other conditions caused by the pandemic continue to challenge educators, said Herman, who also is co-director of the Missouri Prevention Science Institute and the National Center for Rural Mental Health. He also is a co-developer for the Boone County Family Access Center of Excellence and a board member of the Boone County Schools Mental Health Coalition.

“I think conditions on the ground in most of our schools are not great in terms of supporting the adults who work there or the kids who are trying to learn there,” Herman said. “I think there’s a lot of stress that people are experiencing and it was already stressful before the pandemic. I think the pandemic just exacerbated that. And it’s not surprising that people are when people are under stress, they’re more likely to act in in ways that are harmful to themselves or others.”

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