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Children Should Not Fear School

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019 @ 10:22AM

I remember during my childhood the “duck and cover drills” we endured in the wake of the invention of the atomic bomb. We cowered under our desks, not knowing what to think. Was there really the possibility we could be blown to bits? The Cuban missile crisis had everyone on edge. We lived in constant fear. The more time we spent thinking about our impending demise, the less time we spent thinking about homework and grades. Decades later school children are being subjected to “active shooter drills,” which psychologists say often inflicts enduring damage on the children the drills are designed to keep safe. There must be a better idea.

On Wednesday, June 12, 2019 at 3:30 p.m. in Room 2261 in the Rayburn House Office Building, Dr. Ron Avi Astor, along with several distinguished colleagues, will convene a congressional briefing to discuss how the science of psychology, social work, and education research can address the issue of students feeling safe in schools. The briefing, held in conjunction with the Congressional Social Work Caucus chaired by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13), will focus on developing a public health approach to the problem of weapons and violence in schools.

The mass shooting at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018, that left 17 students and staff dead and another 17 wounded, elevated the public’s attention on the vulnerability of many schools. Many bills have been introduced in Congress to promote school safety. They range from H.R. 1109 that would provide more psychological resources in schools to H.R. 743 that would license teachers to carry guns. One that has promise is H.R. 838 — Threat Assessment, 5 Prevention, and Safety Act of 2019 that would create a multi-disciplinary process the assess threats and identify best practices for ensuring school safety. The has 84 sponsors—42 Republicans and 42 Democrats—a rare display of bipartisanship in these days.  

Dr. Ron Avi Astor

“After the shootings in Parkland, those of us who have been doing this kind of school safety work, realized that much of the national discussion was about stopping the next shooter and preventing mass shootings and students had been telling us through our research that they had broader issues with weapons in schools,” Dr. Astor explained. “The youth of this country have been telling us through our research that they have been exposed to and threatened with a variety of weapons—not just guns—and although they may not have been killed or harmed, the presence of those weapons has had a significant impact how they felt about school.”

Dr. Astor, who recently completed 17 years at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and Rossier School of Education, is moving to UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs as the Marjorie Crump Endowed Professor of Social Welfare where he plans to create an international school safety and wellbeing center to help shape the vision of what healthy schools ought to be. He will draw on research and ideas in his most recent book, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate in Evolving Contexts: Culture, Organization, and Time, which he co-authored with Rami Benbenishty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published in January by Oxford University Press. There is a companion website, podcast, and policy brief available.

Also on the panel are: Dr. Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis; Dr. Dorothy Espelage, Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida; Dr. Marlenee Wong, Professor of Clinical Social Work at the University of Southern California; Lauren Hogg, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Florida; and Pia Valenzuela Escudero, executive director at Los Angeles Unified School District, Division of Student Health and Human Services.

The mass shooting Friday in Virginia Beach was yet another reminder that more needs to be done to reduce the proliferation of guns in the hands of unstable individuals. Dr. Astor says the focus needs to be broader. Failure to provide safe and nurturing environments in our school will prove costly in the long run if we fail to allow America’s children to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, confronting fear in schools and neighborhoods is something children of color have been living with for decades. Let’s hope this briefing will produce ideas that will lead to more effective strategies that will make schools and neighborhoods safer.

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