MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — The University of South Alabama, along with Mobile County Public Schools and the Mobile Police Department, have launched a new initiative to reduce violence among kids and teens.

USA is leading the initiative that will take place at four local middle schools. It’s called Project SOAR, and the goal is to reduce youth violence as well as suicidality.

It’s a five-year project, supported by a $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The first year of the project will be baseline data collection, to see what the pattern of youth violence and suicidality is right now. In the next year, USA will work with schools and the precincts where the schools are located to do school-wide positive behavior intervention.

This project ties in with Operation Echo stop, an initiative launched by the Police Department in February to help stop gun violence in the city.

“We have to think holistically. We can’t really just think about the violent event. We really have to move upstream where we’re looking at people before they get to the point where they’re involved in violence, or thinking about hurting themselves. SOAR is part of that, hitting them in middle school when they’re really at risk for moving off trajectory for positive development, academic disengagement, and the like. So by getting them before they’re involved in violence, or thinking about harming themselves, we think we can effect a whole system of change. Hopefully downstream, we’ll see the rates of suicide and violence go down,” said Dr. Phillip Smith, Professor of Psychology at the University of South Alabama.

Teachers will also be getting training and coaching so they have strategies to engage youth and how to manage disruptive behavior in the classroom. USA researchers will survey youth about their behaviors and experiences at four middle schools: Causey, Hankins, Booker T Washington, and Pillans.

“I think one of the tragedies our nation is facing is we’re seeing really high rates of death that can be avoided among middle school-aged youth. And that’s what this intervention is trying to do,” said Dr. Krista Mehari, the Assistant Professor of Psychology at USA, and the Principal Investigator for SOAR.

Project SOAR is a whole-school approach, meaning all children will be participating in the project. Parents can opt out.

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