Justin E. Heinze, PhD –Program Evaluation

Member Highlight –January 2017

  • Justin E. Heinze, PhD (jheinze@umich.edu)
    • Research Assistant Professor, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, School of Public Health, University of Michigan

What is the focus of your current injury research? 

I investigate how schools influence disparities in substance use, mental health, and violence outcomes from an ecological perspective that includes individual, interpersonal, and contextual influences on development. I am particularly interested in structural features of school context and policy that perpetuate inequity into the adult transition (e.g., school to prison pipeline; accessibility of mental health services), but also how these institutions can serve as a setting for intervention.  Currently, I am working with colleagues from Michigan State University to evaluate a comprehensive multi-component school safety intervention for fourth through sixth graders. The program applies a primary and secondary prevention approach including: 1) a restorative justice framework for managing violence; 2) timely assistance via Mental Health First Aid; and 3) promotion of a positive school environment by improving the physical surroundings. We will evaluate the implementation and outcomes of a train-the-trainer model to reduce school violence and improve mental health outcomes. The program involves school teams composed of school staff, mental health experts, and police officers to disseminate evidence-based school safety initiatives. The design uses student and police data, focus groups with key stakeholders, teachers, and students, and a cost-benefit analysis with regard to violence outcomes using a quasi-experimental matched control group design with delayed treatment.

Why is this interesting to you? 

I am interested in how health disparities in young adulthood are perpetuated by examining the multi-level risk and promotive factors that moderate growth and adaptation from childhood to adulthood.  One nearly universal context in the U.S. is found within schools, but there is marked variability in school experiences. These bedrock institutions are, at their heart, places where young people should be free to explore, learn, and grow without fear or want of basic necessities.  Too often, however, they are dangerous places for students and those experiences can have negative ramifications well into adulthood.  The interventions we are currently employing are designed in the hopes of reducing some of those disparities and making schools safe and supportive places for young people to develop.  

What are the practical implications for this research in preventing injury? 

Developmental contexts that are resource-poor (i.e., schools, neighborhoods), exert negative pressure on youth, hindering growth through a variety of mechanisms, underscoring the importance of a holistic approach to health promotion and the need for interventions tailored to both individuals and their environments. Substance use, mental health issues, and violence perpetration each tend to increase in adolescence and peak in young adulthood, with a disproportionate disease burden on minority populations. Behaviors learned to cope with these challenges during this critical developmental period can solidify and persist throughout the life span.  School environments, climates, and constituents are frequently cited as contributing to risk behaviors and are thus an important intervention point.

What do you think is the biggest misconception of your line of work? 

When people think of school safety, I think availability biases often draw them to large-harrscale/impact events like school shootings and crime, but for many students, it’s daily harassment, micro-aggressions, and emotional threats that can make school seem like an unsafe place to be.  One of the reasons I support climate-wide interventions is that they address multiple forms of violence that can happen within schools due to prevailing norms among teachers and students, the physical features of the building, structural and policy factors at the school and district level, and many other features of the broader school ecology that can contribute to safety.

What is the next area of research that you would like to pursue? 

Much of the work on which I’m currently focused is a “kitchen sink” approach to violence prevention and safety promotion.  Identifying programs that can improve safety and facilitate changes toward a positive school climate are in need of rigorous evaluation and testing, as well as implementation monitoring; but determining fidelity and effectiveness is just the first step.  Understanding the mechanisms through which positive school climate, for example, leads to improved mental health and decreased risk behavior is a key challenge with a community-level approach.  What part of a climate intervention is most effective at improving climate perceptions?  Is that the same part that is the most effective at reducing aggression and violent behavior?  Are there lower burden interventions that can be implemented in lieu of very intensive interventions that can be used at schools at different levels of risk?  These are all future questions I hope to answer after identifying some promising strategies for positive climate promotion.

In an ideal world, without limits, what research group would you most like to connect or collaborate with? Why? 

There is a group led by David Finkelhor out in New Hampshire that collects perhaps the most comprehensive data on polyvictimization (multiple experiences of violence from multiple sources) in the country.  I think the concept of polyvictimization is incredibly important as are some of the questions that construct engenders (e.g., does a single violent event where a teenager is shot or stabbed have a greater influence than, say, a number of instances where that student is bullied or gets in fist fights).  It’s about trying to get a comprehensive picture of how youth experience violence in their lives, which comes from a growing body of evidence indicating that experiencing one form or act of violence is often associated with others.  If there are predictable patterns of victimization, then tailored interventions could be designed in the hopes of disrupting those patters.

Click here to view Dr. Heinze's Michigan Experts profile.

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Article Type: