Reducing the threat of gun violence and promoting school safety through connectedness, community, and support: Ron Avi Astor

Just Talk - Voices of Education and Justice

In this week’s Just Talk, John Rogers sits down with Ron Avi Astor, professor of social work and education at USC. Professor Astor is an expert in school violence and bullying as well as efforts to create safe schools. His research examines the role of the physical, social-organizational and cultural contexts in schools related to different kinds of school violence (e.g., sexual harassment, bullying, school fights, emotional abuse, weapon use, teacher/child violence). Astor also has developed a school mapping and local monitoring procedure that can be used with students and teachers to generate “grassroots” solutions to safety problems. Last month, he published two books on these topics with Oxford University Press:  1) Welcoming practices: Creating schools that support students and families in transition; and 2) Building a safe school climate. Professor Astor is a member of the National Academy of Education, a member of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association.

John Rogers: Ron, you recently joined a group of scholars from around the country to issue a statement about reducing the threat of gun violence in American schools. Sadly, this isn’t the first time you’ve been called on to take such action. In 2012, you were part of another group that issued a statement in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary  (which was a revision of yet another statement written in 2006 following a different school shooting.) Although I’m eager to hear about your ideas for addressing gun violence in schools, I am also mindful of the fact that between these moments of acute crisis, many young people in America’s public schools do not feel safe for a variety of different reasons. I want to start by asking you to reflect on the meaning of safe schools more generally: aside from this critically important need for schools to be free of gun violence, what should safe schools look and feel like?

Ron Astor: That’s a great question, because it’s critical that we don’t respond to the shootings only. What’s gotten lost in much of this is an open debate about what the purpose of schooling is. Safety is a core element that has to be discussed not only in terms of what we want our schools to be like but what we want our society to be like as well.

In philosophical terms, the best schools say to all of us, “This is what our society can be.” They model for us what better integration or gender equality might look like. At a national level, these things need to become part of the central discussion, even when we talk about test scores. In some respects, those who are advocating for social-emotional learning and wellbeing are bringing this conversation to the fore, which is good. But we need to take three steps back and think about what would make students and teachers feel like they’re contributing members of society who also take on the responsibility for their own safety, and that of their friends, family members, and even strangers who they’ve never met before.

I’m reminded of a piece you wrote last December about the distinctive challenges of creating school safety in today’s political environment.

We’re getting a very loud and clear message on this from your recent work , and from the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I think what’s interesting about what’s happening right now is that Trump and congress are exhibiting behaviors that go against our accepted standards for social-emotional wellbeing and our academic goals for schools. Most third graders and fourth graders, if they reflected even a fraction of what they are hearing, would be called in to the principal’s office.

I recommend for teachers and principals to say, “Even if a president says that, just because they’re authority, that’s wrong about grabbing women.” I think that educators are a little bit afraid that they’re not allowed to talk about politics in the class, but if the school’s role is to educate for a civic society, which necessarily deals with how men and women treat each other or treat different racial or religious groups, then we have to be able to talk about it. There is a great educational opportunity within this for social-emotional learning, and it’s not politics, it’s directly related to what we’ve collectively decided to be the purpose of education.

So we need to focus on fostering dialogue and building new sorts of relationships in schools rather than … arming teachers?

People who argue that we need to harden the schools and arm the teachers can only reach that conclusion if education is not central to the discussion, because we have ample data showing that these policies make teachers and kids feel worse. Prisoners don’t walk around saying, “Whoa, I feel great. I’ve got bars and walls and people with guns all around me.” And this hardening is likely to impact our poorest communities and students of color the hardest, in the same way the school-to-prison pipeline has. And with all the unintended consequences that, again, haven’t been talked about—accidental shootings and so forth—if we have 300 million guns in our country, arming twenty percent of school staff is just going to balloon that.  From an epidemiological data perspective, it’s a nightmare.

We know that from a public health perspective, you can actually create spaces where people feel welcomed and cared about through education. That way, young people feel that they’re not snitching on their friend, but saving their friends’ lives. They understand that bringing a weapon to school might be for self-protection or it might be a call for help. There’s multiple ways to educate and to do that that’s not draconian and that’s not punitive and it actually makes our society a better place. Educational communities have to help people understand that you cannot have good reading or mathematics for everybody or you’ll have to have even more gated communities that separate the wealthy from the poor so that the wealthy can have the illusion of safety.

Your last comment brings to mind a point that you and your colleagues made after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, that a positive vision of safety includes connectedness, communication, and feeling supported. What does it mean for a school to promote these things?

Great teachers and principals make kids feel welcomed. And they do this at the right times. Transitions are really central–when children first come to school, or when they switch a school, or go from grade to grade. The schools that do this the best don’t actually have any programs, and they’re not even using any evidence, but they’ve created a civic sense of opportunity and duty. And that filters down to the kids. These schools say to their students, “Let’s practice what we do to welcome students who are new here.” Is the kid sitting alone at lunch? Nobody sits alone, and particularly not the new kid. Is anybody helping this kid with homework? Do the parents have opportunities to get to know other parents? Those are the sorts of links that we need to start making, and it’s what creates connectedness. Kids feel cared for at school and all feel connected to the academic goals. When schools don’t attend to these issues they actually make the problem bigger, which transfers out to the community. By not creating this feeling of connectedness in schools, we’re creating bigger community problems.

We’ve just started looking at this with the issue of suicide. What happens in the school between students and between teachers and kids over time contributes so much to children’s suicidal ideations. We have yearly state averages for this and right now, 20 percent of high school students  have suicidal ideations. In some schools it’s up to 75 percent. It transcends issues of what teachers do in math classes when 60 percent of students think about taking their own lives and have access to weapons. It seems like we don’t want to talk about how connectedness intersects with all these other issues. Some schools are able to create that connectedness in communities that deal with gangs and shootings and yet they actually elevate everybody in the community. It creates opportunities for the families and kids and connections that they’ve never had. And what those teachers do, and what the students do with each other, matters for their academics as well.

I know for several years you’ve used various international data sets to identify what dimensions of schools lead them to be particularly safe. In one piece you highlight how educators connect to the indigenous cultural values of their students.

Across the board we can see the importance of a principal, and the organization of the school itself, in combining academics and social-emotional issues. These principals have a mission and they do not accept the idea that their school is a tabula rasa; they understand the spillover from the community and deal with that. Those principals tend to be a little more in conflict with their communities, actually.

Which we might expect when school leaders are trying to promote justice in contexts that are not fully just.

That’s right. All of these schools have amazing principals and vice principals and teachers that have bought into a mission that’s not typical. We’ve tracked some of them in different countries as they go to a new school, and lo and behold, over time the new schools that they come to start looking like the schools that they left. But the schools that they left degrade over time unless they get one of their vice principals to take over. So principals clearly play a critical role.

More recently we’ve been going up the organizational chain and looking at districts. We’ve found that there’s almost no data for the roles that superintendents, staff, size, and resources play. That’s been missing, and in all places across the world it plays a much larger role in terms of the spread and the sustenance of the positive practices. We’re trying to think now at that level, because principals come and go. The places that have been able to sustain these practices have regional and district support. One of the best things we can do at the state level is make sure that we get not just great principals and programs and ideas, but superintendents and politicians who write policy. Without that support these practices are unsustainable and don’t grow.

So if we are thinking above the level of a single school, it’s critical to have data and a set of publicized goals that articulate the importance of positive relationships—the connectedness that you were speaking of before—so that the whole system is supportive of the schools that do this well.

That’s correct. Whoever is leading districts plays a critical role. They tend to have those same values regarding culture and connectedness that we saw in those remarkable principals. We see that in how they deal with student homelessness, or with bullying, and dealing with vulnerable groups overall, whether it is LGBTQ students or military kids. We see this in Israel with the Bedouin, or with Druze kids, or Ultra Orthodox kids, which are all really vulnerable groups in Israel. The leaders that take this on have this specific view that actually is the same across cultures.

Can you explain what that means? It seems contradictory.

Whether it’s a Hasidic principal saying that “The Talmud says we should really relate to one another” or a principal in Peru or Chile, they express similar values but in the context of their own cultures. Their influences may be a bit different and each has their own flair, their own language and music. But what’s surprising to us is that when you look at these stellar schools and their values, in terms of the organization and commitment, they’re really similar.

I’d like to ask you about a few of the specific recommendations in the statement that recently came out on reducing the threat of gun violence in schools. It calls for a national requirement for all schools to assess their school’s climate and maintain physically and emotionally safe conditions that protect all students from bullying, discrimination, harassment and assault. How can schools assess school climate?

Israel is the gold standard on this, and they’ve centralized it for all of their 3,000 schools. Their system is based on some of our earlier work and they’ve been doing it for 20 years or so. Their national system integrates the academics of each school with assessments of social-emotional climate. We have found that, by putting the social-emotional piece into the assessment of a school’s academics, it became like central air conditioning—shaping the environment throughout the school.

Within the systems that do this really well, as far as measurements go, a central part of their mission is to not be punitive. We have a long history in the United States of testing and measuring something for the purpose of punishing. Everywhere around the world, when legislators move in that direction, the response from educators is to say, “Well, let’s not assess.” Our concern for making school climate assessments voluntary, as opposed to being a national requirement, is that schools in some of the most violent places will fight measuring it. Let’s say California has about 10,000 schools: what if there are 3,000 schools where the principal doesn’t want to measure it even though they’re not functioning well? We have to figure out a way where we don’t punish schools or principals that also allows us to deal with the issue of scale, because otherwise millions of kids will continue to be written off because we don’t have a way of measuring it.

In Israel, they’ve developed a three-year process; they use the data with principals and teachers, in focus groups with students, and they go back and forth and are continually assessing. It’s cyclical—they wrap it around the math class and around the literature class. It’s not a separate thing that a social worker comes in and does it from the outside.

The national statement also calls for a “ban on assault-style weapons, high capacity ammunition clips, and products that modify semi-automatic firearms to enable them to function like automatic firearms.”

I would be the happiest person in the world if they banned assault weapons because that would kill fewer people. Probably one of the biggest stories that people tell is in China, I believe it was Shanghai. You probably know this story. A few years before Sandy Hook there was somebody who had a lot of mental health issues with violence to self and others that went with a knife and a machete into a kindergarten class and I think stabbed something like 25, 30 kids, which was horrible. None of them died. They all lived. I keep on thinking about that. We don’t hear about these other places around the world, not because kids aren’t attacked or it never happens, because these are such lethal weapons and the access is so easy. That’s an easy fix.

Given the moment that we’re in, what is it that keeps you hopeful?

These [Parkland] kids. You can tell that these are kids that have been enculturated to believe that when there’s an injustice, they can act. Everybody is taking their lead right now on the march. Even as we do a Congressional briefing, we want to make sure that it’s okay with the kids. I love that. I love the idea that it’s not a group of talking heads and experts over there. That gives me hope that there’s a lot of people out there who want to do the right thing, and I want to follow these kid’s leads. I love the fact that we have a position statement out there, and I like that I am able to write Op Eds, but I’m more than willing to follow these kids to Washington DC because I think they can make a bigger change because they have a different kind of legitimacy. They’re the ones that have the legitimacy and the power to make this kind of change. I think they’re igniting something that could spread. I’m hoping it does. In terms of our statement, I think what’s driving all of us is the fact that we want to help them. We want to help them move forth.

The young people are pushing us all to have a new and more urgent public conversation about guns and safety and how we collectively effect social change.

Watching the town hall meeting, I cried all the way through, both out of sadness and joy. I loved how the students were taking power on. They felt entitled because of their experience, but they also have this capacity to take on these big politicians because of their education. These kids have outlined the issues in such a clear way from the perspective of a victim that they actually give me the opportunity to voice some science and data as well too. I want to make sure that we don’t usurp their authority in this situation, but follow their lead and provide guidance when they need it. That’s the way it always should’ve been anyways.

I’m optimistic that this time might actually be different if we can get enough sustained push.  But I don’t know, we’ll see. Not everybody is as optimistic about that. I’ll be there on March 23rd for the testimony, and hopefully March 24th for the march on Washington with the kids.