How to actually reduce school shootings

Love all those kids walking out of their high schools today.  Love that not only did my high schooler walk out, his middle-school brother did, too.  David even made his own sign he was pretty proud of (“nerf or nothing”).  Apparently a few of his classmates didn’t like making the walk-out “political.”  David forthrightly let his classmates know that walking out of school to protest lack of government action to keep school safe(r) from gun violence is, of course, inherently political.  Oh, such a proud dad (I leave the non-proud dad stuff out of the blog 😉 ).  Actually, here’s the photo:


Anyway, it reminded me of this excellent NPR story from a week ago on “how to prevent the next school shooting.”  Lots of good stuff, and guns are only part of the equation:

Their topline message: Don’t harden schools. Make them softer, by improving social and emotional health.

“If we’re really talking about prevention, my perspective is that we should go for the public health approach,” says Ron Avi Astor at the University of Southern California, who also helped draft the plan.

A public health approach to disease means, instead of waiting for people to be rushed to emergency rooms with heart attacks or the flu, you go into the community: with vaccinations, screenings, fruits and vegetables, walking trails and exercise coaches. You screen and regulate environmental hazards, like a nearby polluting factory. You keep watch on reported cases of illness, to stop a new outbreak in its tracks.

A public health approach to school shootings, Astor explains, would be much along the same lines.

Instead of waiting for people to, again, be rushed into emergency rooms, you go into the community with preventive resources. You do your best to lower the background levels of bullying and discrimination. You track the data and perform what is called “threat assessments” on potential risks.

And, these experts say, you remove the major “environmental hazard” that contributes to gun violence: the guns. The eight-point plan calls for universal background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons, and something called Gun Violence Protection Orders: a type of emergency order that would allow police to seize a gun when there is an imminent threat.

What sets this call to action apart from other policy proposals is not gun control, however, but the research-based approach to violence prevention and response. This is a long haul, say the experts, not a quick fix…

Prevention: The first step

School climate may sound fuzzy or abstract. It means the quality of relationships among the students and the adults in a school. It’s affected by the school’s approach to discipline and behavior, the availability of professionals like counselors and social workers, as well as any social-emotional curriculum taught in the classroom.

School climate, in turn, affects students’ mental and emotional health and academic success. And research by Astor and others has consistently found key factors that can make schools safer: cultivate social and emotional health, connect to community resources and respond, particularly, to troubled students.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, the very kids who bring weapons to school are more likely to report being bullied or threatened themselves. They may be fearful of gang violence and feel a need to protect themselves on the way back and forth to school.

Or, they may be individually ostracized and aggrieved. This is true not just in the United States, says Astor, but in “Kosovo, Canada, Chile, Israel, the kids who bring weapons to school are reporting tons of victimization.”

So, if you devote resources to shutting down bullying, discrimination and harassment, there is a chance to de-escalate conflict before it starts.

And research shows that school climate measures really work. In fact, there has been a steady downward trend in bullying and harassment over the past decade, which Catherine Bradshaw at the University of Virginia attributes in part to evidence-based social and emotional measures.

Lots more good stuff in the article.  And hey, we don’t have to fight the NRA and gun nuts on most of it.  So, let’s make it happen!



About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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