Gun Violence Town Hall Takes Stock of School Safety Research and Practices
Gun Violence Town Hall Takes Stock of School Safety Research and Practices

April 2019

Town Hall Meeting Participants
(Left to Right): Felice J. Levine,
Vivian L. Gadsen, David M. Osher,
Ron Avi Astor, Matthew J. Mayer,
and Amanda B. Nickerson

With gun violence and school safety still among the top concerns of educators and policy leaders, AERA held an Annual Meeting Town Hall on April 8 to examine the dynamics and patterns of gun violence in schools and communities in the United States, take stock of promising policy and societal developments, and scrutinize emerging research addressing the consequences of gun violence. This session included discussion of the recommendations in the final report of the Federal Commission on School Safety released in December 2018. There was particular attention to what we know about keeping students safe at school and on promoting supportive school climates through evidence-based programs and policies.

This Town Hall meeting, “Gun Violence in Our Schools and Communities—Town Hall Meeting II,” built on a Town Hall meeting on gun violence held at the 2018 AERA Annual Meeting. Last year’s convening, held in the wake of the horrific Parkland school shooting and in response to the continuing national tragedy of gun violence, examined the latest research and the existing body of empirical evidence on gun violence and its implications for schools and communities.

This year’s Town Hall was again co-chaired by Vivian L. Gadsden (University of Pennsylvania) and AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine. The participants included Ron Avi Astor (University of Southern California), Dorothy L. Espelage (University of Florida), Matthew J. Mayer (Rutgers University), David M. Osher (American Institutes for Research), and Amanda B. Nickerson (University at Buffalo).

In her opening comments, Levine said, “We knew we would need to have another Town Hall, and unfortunately, we will probably need a Town Hall III on gun violence next year.”

Gadsden noted the importance of educational settings in family and community contexts. “Education can play a central role,” she said, “but research and interventions need to be situated in the broader contexts of the lived experiences of children and youth.”

Town Hall Participants (Left to Right):
Felice J. Levine, Vivian L. Gadsen

Throughout the event, panelists emphasized the vital importance of credible scientific research to further an understanding of what works to prevent gun violence, of the need for school and policy leaders to look beyond narrow definitions of school safety, and of the importance of looking at school safety through the eyes of students.

“We often conflate issues, like mental health and violence, and create false narratives between security and no security, as if that were the only choice,” Mayer said.

“We need to engage students on what makes them feel safe and unsafe in school, and understand it through an intersectional lens and differing experiences,” said Osher. “With this type of information, we can understand the dimensions of safety. Safety is not just physical; safety is also emotional and psychological. Safety involves identity. School violence is not just someone bringing in a gun and shooting.”

Nickerson stressed the value of social-emotional learning in fostering healthy school climates. “We need to be systematically teaching our students how to connect with others,” she said.

“We need to listen to adolescents when we structure mental health and emotional health programs for them,” Nickerson said. “We need to understand their needs in relation to bullying and use the language they are using.”

Ron Avi Astor

Astor discussed the recommendations of the policy brief “Reducing Weapons in Schools” (American Psychological Association, Division 15), released in February, Astor noted: “While mass school shootings are rare, the availability and prevalence of guns and other weapons have a wider impact on education. Twenty-three percent of kids have seen a weapon on schools grounds.”

The panel also discussed the divergent research on the role of school resource officers (SROs) in school safety. Osher noted that many students of color feel unsafe with in their interactions with SROs. “The history of mass incarceration and the discipline disparities for students of color are tied to hindering safety,” said Osher. “These both create an unsafe environment for students of color.”

Nickerson added, “I think we need to move away from a fortress type of school security setting . . . to a multidisciplinary approach to school safety, with school resource officers and counselors.”

Panelists also expressed concern about the resolve of national leaders to address gun violence. Astor said, “We are making strides on the local level and in California, but we don't have a voice on the national level.”

Similarly, Mayer added, “As I noted last year, in response to school shooting, do we have the resolve to change? Do everyday folks see themselves as part of social change? I don’t think we are there yet.”

Following an extensive Q&A session with audience members, Levine’s concluding remarks offered a message of renewed commitment to advancing scientific research on what works to prevent gun violence and improve school climates.

Editor's Note: 

On June 12, AERA is co-hosting a Capitol Hill briefing titled “The Reduction of Weapons in Schools and Surrounding Communities: Evidence Supported Policy Recommendations for Empowerment and School/Community Involvement at the National, State, and Regional Levels.”

Panelists will include Sean Joe (Washington University in St. Louis), Dorothy Espelage (University of Florida), Marleen Wong (University of Southern California), Ron Avi Astor (University of Southern California), Pia Esudero (Los Angeles Unified School District), and Lauren Hogg (March for Our Lives).

In addition to AERA, co-hosts include the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, the American Psychological Association, the National Academy of Education, the National of Social Workers, and the School Social Work Association of America.  More information about the event will be shared with AERA members as it becomes available.