Dorothy Espelage: A quest to end violence, bullying in schools

Last fall, UF Psychology Professor Dorothy Espelage and her team received a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to test new training methods to help school resource officers (SROs) mediate student violence and foster a sense of community in schools. The project launched in January in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which employs 200 SROs and is the fourth-largest school district in the country.

As someone who has studied violent behaviors for the past two-plus decades, Espelage knows her research to keep children safe is more pressing than ever. The tragic recent events in Parkland, Fla., further underscore this urgency. Espelage is an expert in such behaviors as bullying, sexual harassment, homophobic teasing, dating violence and gang violence.

UF at Work recently spoke with Espelage, who joined UF two years ago, about her research, inspirations and her path to Florida.

Can you tell us about the pilot program in Miami-Dade County?

The pilot is comprised of four 90-minute online training modules that emphasize the latest research and strategies in four areas: social-emotional learning; trauma-informed care; cultural competence, implicit bias and intersectionality; and restorative practices and problem-solving. This online professional development will offer opportunities for the SROs to develop strategies in each of these four domains and apply them to their daily activities in schools.

SROs are police officers with extensive training in school safety. So enhancing their existing skills with training in competencies specific to child development and youth behavioral and mental health has the potential to pave the way for nationwide progress in SRO professional development and school safety.

How will the program work?

This fall, we’re randomly assigning half of the SROs to online, research-based, best-practice techniques for addressing the unique needs of school environments. The other half will start online training next fall. The four training modules will be spread out over the course of a year for each group.

We’ll be testing SROs’ knowledge and competencies, and they’ll be evaluating their own sensitivity to gender identity and LGBTQ issues, for example. We’ll also be surveying the SROs and asking them to reflect on the training at pre-determined intervals. The research team will be examining school-level data, such as the number of expulsions and suspensions, as well as the results of school climate surveys. By the end of the pilot in 2020, we hope to scale the program so that every SRO in Florida, and eventually the country, receives this training.

Why are SROs such an important population to reach out to?

Sixty percent of adults have had some kind of traumatic experience as kids, so we want SROs to be approaching their work with this in mind and give them a range of tools. The ultimate goal is keeping schools safe and keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system. We’re trying to bring everybody together to resolve the hurt.

What other projects are you currently working on?

Another NIJ-funded project, Project SOARS, which stands for Student Ownership, Accountability, and Responsibility for School Safety, works with high schools in Illinois and Oregon to promote student involvement in school safety, use their knowledge of peer dynamics to prevent victimization, and apply restorative justice measures.

We developed an “Advocator app,” which is a mobile tool students can use to report physical and emotional safety concerns to school administrators. The app includes resources such as training for students; online school safety and behavioral assessments for completion by students, parents and teachers; and online training for teachers on team-based, restorative problem-solving.

A behavior support team at each school will review all concerns and work with students to plan and carry out interventions that promote dialogue, understanding and restorative problem-solving among the affected students.

When we originally started talking to the kids about the app, they said they didn’t know if they’d use it because they didn’t “want to be a snitch.” But they’ve helped us develop it, and together we’ve created something the students will use. Once it’s ready and tested, we want to scale it up to every school in the country.

You’re also working with Google on a virtual reality project. Can you share details about that?

Yes, we’ve just finished a virtual reality (VR) pilot with Harmony Labs and Google. We worked with three screenwriters to create a VR experience for middle school kids around bullying and sexual-based harassment and get students talking to adults about behaviors like cyberbullying. Through the VR experience, we did not turn bullies into non-bullies in three weeks, but we’ve been able to increase seventh-graders’ empathy and improve their perceptions of school social support. We are hopeful to secure federal funding to further test this intervention in Florida schools.

How did you become interested in studying violent behaviors?

I did my Ph.D. at Indiana University and my dissertation was actually on eating disorders. In 1993, I took a job as a graduate assistant on the use of computers to prevent violence. It was a CDC-funded grant looking at using a computer game to teach kids how to manage anger and prevent conflict. As a graduate assistant, I put the evaluation tool together and, in my research, I came across research from Norway about bullying.

I looked into it and found that there were only two papers about bullying in the U.S. in 1993. I was fascinated and created my own scale for the project, which found that the computer game was not helpful in preventing physical fights, but it was helpful in decreasing low-level aggression, which we know as bullying.

After I completed my Ph.D. in 1997, I wanted to understand more about bullying in the U.S. We did interviews and large-scale studies and found that not all bullies are rejected; some are popular.

What was different about bullying in the U.S. compared to other countries?

I grew up with a background of foster care and the military. As an adult, I reflected upon my own strategies of how I protected myself from victimization when I was the new kid in school year after year. I realized that the popular kids were also kids who engaged in bullying behaviors. I started thinking that maybe some youth bully to establish and maintain high social status.

So we designed a study to test a theory that bullying might be adaptive behavior. Indeed, we found that youth who bully have friends, but developmental timing matters. We already know from our work and others’ that if you ask kids in elementary school to identify the students who engage in bullying and to identify their own friends, they name different kids. But if you ask the same questions in middle school, they name the same kids. Middle school bullies are popular and have friends. So what is changing during that time?

There are two types of bullies. One type is popular, with high social capital and many friends. These are called “Machiavellian” bullies. They are attractive to adults and they have really good social skills that they can turn off and on. They use that behavior to establish themselves at the top of peer hierarchies. These bullies are never turned in to adults. The second kind of bully is usually more physically aggressive and unpopular. Other kids turn them in to teachers and principals in a heartbeat. They are outcasts.

Some kids learn that a way to prevent being bullied is to be a bully yourself; that’s the adaptive piece. Sibling aggression and neighborhood aggression are strong predictors of bullying in schools. So we’re encouraging teachers not to label behavior as bad, bad, bad. It’s certainly not tolerable but that behavior may be adaptive—it is dependent on where they’re coming from and what the norms of the school are.

How does your childhood experience influence this work?

Growing up, I learned quickly how to figure out who had social capital in school and be friends with them. I projected the personality of “don’t mess with the new girl.” I never saw my situation as maladaptive. It has made me curious about the roles of schools, teachers and families. I’ve been plugging along at that for decades.

We started with large-scale evaluations of interventions and now we’re developing our own interventions. Our work on bullying within subgroups (LGBTQ and minority populations especially) was really at the forefront of identifying vulnerable populations and led to laws across the U.S. We keep trying to prevent peer victimization and bullying in order to reduce depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviors and to promote protective factors for all youth.

Why is this work so important to you?

It’s tough to be a kid in a school anywhere, but it’s especially difficult not having parental support. It breaks my heart to see kids come from families that are not supportive and then to go to a school that is not supportive. We owe it to these kids to create a safe space where they can recreate the family that they might not have at home.

I am where I am now because of teachers, coaches and administrators who supported me and gave me opportunities to look at my home life and say, “That is not who I am.” So there’s a personal bent to why I do this work.

It also inspires me to see and work with young doctoral students on these issues. Together, we’re taking science and translating it in a way that can benefit society.