ALEXANDRIA, Ky. -- School violence comes in many forms, and no community is immune. Greater Cincinnati is a case in point.
Four teens were shot at Madison Junior/Senior High School in Butler County earlier this year when a classmate opened fire in the school's cafeteria.
Just this month, kindergarten students at North College Hill Elementary School passed around a loaded gun.
And locals continue to follow the story of Emilie Olsen, a Fairfield middle-schooler whose parents have filed a federal lawsuit citing bullying as the cause of their daughter's suicide.
Could training students to help mitigate the "bystander effect" among their peers be the key to reducing all of this school violence?
Campbell County Schools and a handful of partners, including a research team at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, think so. And a $4.9 million research grant from the National Institute of Justice is helping them explore that hypothesis over the next four years.
The Northern Kentucky school district received the grant funding in September through the institute's Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, a national project aimed at improving the safety of our nation's schools and students through research that produces practical knowledge.
The grant is fully funding the local district's research project, "Identifying and Embedding Brokers into a Multi-tiered System of Services to Reduce the Bystander Effect Leading to a Reduction in School Violence," which is set to kick off early in the new year.
It's a long title, but here's the gist: The multi-tiered approach includes identifying key peers, or student "brokers," who will be trained to promote social resiliency among the student body in an effort to help mitigate the bystander effect.
The bystander effect occurs when a student is in a position to effect change but avoids disclosing information to help a real or potential victim of school violence.
Research suggests it happens in schools across the U.S. at every grade level, according to Connie Pohlgeers, Campbell County Schools' director of school improvement. A 2015 study showed that more than half of children and adolescents between ages 8-10 have witnessed or experienced violence victimization in the past year, she said. And a similar study revealed that youths ages 8 to 15 rank bullying as a primary problem in their lives. These findings and further studies on the topic suggest that in nearly every case, students are aware of impending or actual school violence."
The problem is that kids don't always speak up or report on incidents of school violence before it happens, Pohlgeers said.
"Part of the goal of our research is identifying students who will help us prevent that line of thinking."
To do that, Campbell County Schools is looking to psychologist Dr. Richard Gilman. He's the director of School-Based Services in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Children's Hospital and a professor in the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine.
Gilman is the principal investigator of the school district's research project and will lead efforts to both identify those positive student peer "brokers" in third-, sixth- and ninth-grade classrooms who he says can influence the behavior of other students, and train them to promote social resiliency among their classmates.
Gilman has studied social resiliency (i.e., the capacity of individuals to adapt, reorganize, and grow in response to social stress) in youth throughout his career. He says kids need it in order to effectively deal with bullying and other forms of school violence. And it has been directly tied to increased levels of disclosure.
The bottom line: Because these key peers can influence the behavior of others, the likelihood of students speaking up and speaking out about pending school violence will increase, project organizers believe. Thus, reducing school violence overall.
The project in Campbell County is groundbreaking research in the area of school violence prevention, according to Gilman. Using "brokers" to help change the behavior of their peers has been successful in other areas of study, but not in this one, he said.
"It hasn't been applied in this context," Gilman explained. "If our hypothesis is correct, this will be a profound way to attack victimization in our schools and ultimately help prevent school violence."
That could mean better outcomes for kids across the nation. School violence -- whether it comes in violent, physical forms or more passive forms, such as verbal or cyber-bullying -- hurts students in more ways than most people realize, Gilman said.
"It reverberates and negatively affects every part of their life," he said. "It also affects those close to them."
In fact, students attending highly violent schools often experience higher dropout rates, poor school attendance and poor scholastic achievement, according to a National Association of School Psychologists study project organizers cited in Campbell County Schools' grant proposal."
There are a number of victimization programs in schools across the country, but the efficacy is moderate," Gilman said. "I think they're targeting the wrong individuals.
"That's why this research is so exciting."
An added benefit of the project is that 11 additional mental health professionals will be serving on staff at the school district over the course of the four-year project. Embedded resiliency training is planned for students and staff as well.
In addition to the team from Children's Hospital, Campbell County Schools has also brought on grant consultants who specialize in social analysis, bullying and the bystander effect. The Kentucky Center for School Safety is also involved in the project. Their work could have a big impact on comprehensive school safety, according to Superintendent David Rust.
"As part of this important project, our school district has the potential to positively impact the lives of students across our district, nation and world," Rust said back in September when the district first announced the project. "Ultimately, we hope to better empower students to take ownership and be proactive stewards of their school and its safety."