Capitol Hill Briefing Examines Evidence for Improving School Safety
Capitol Hill Briefing Examines Evidence for Improving School Safety

June 2019

On June 12, nearly 100 congressional staff, federal employees, and members of the research community attended a congressional briefing on school safety hosted by AERA, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, and the National Academy of Education. The briefing addressed current scientific data highlighting the pressing need to reduce violence in schools and communities and improve school safety.

Titled “The Impact of Weapons and Violence on Schools and Surrounding Communities,” the briefing was held at the Rayburn House Office Building and livestreamed on the AERA Facebook page. It is now available on the AERA YouTube channel.

The briefing featured six panelists: Ron Avi Astor (University of California, Los Angeles), Pia Valenzuela Escudero (Los Angeles Unified School District), Dorothy Espelage (University of Florida), Lauren Hogg (Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School), Sean Joe (Washington University in St. Louis), and Marleen Wong (University of Southern California). Astor also served as the moderator.

The panelists detailed the impact of gun violence on the education and well-being of students, their families, and local communities, and discussed evidence-based policies and practices that can assist with successfully mitigating weapons and violence, increasing student empowerment, and enhancing community safety.

Lauren Hogg

Lauren Hogg, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, spoke first, emphasizing the fact that most individuals coping with mental health issues are nonviolent. Hogg also noted that the effects of gun violence “don’t stop when the school bell rings,” and that it has become very important for schools and communities to find a balance between “making schools safe and making them prisons.”

Sean Joe

Sean Joe, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis, discussed the growing need to address suicide across the nation, noting that suicide rates are higher in states with the fewest restrictions on “lethal means,” including access to a firearm. Notably, Joe commented that a person who attempts suicide with a firearm has a 95 percent chance of dying, as opposed to a 5 percent chance through other means. 

Marleen Wong

Marleen Wong, a professor of clinical social work at the University of Southern California, focused her remarks on the need to develop a comprehensive strategy to provide trauma-informed services to schools and communities. She noted that one major impediment to developing such services is the fact that schools are not always equipped to provide the necessary training.

Dorothy Espelage

Similarly, Dorothy Espelage, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, discussed specific research findings regarding training of school resource officers in trauma-informed response. She also cited several projects, including the ongoing development of a mobile app to streamline the reporting of threats in a way that is safe and accountable, which could help mitigate violence in schools and communities. Espelage called for $50 million in funding from the National Institute of Justice and $25 million from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for mandatory additional training in trauma-informed response for school resource officers.

Pia Valenzuela Escudero

Pia Valenzuela Escudero, executive director of the Los Angeles Public School District’s Division of Student Health and Human Services, continued the discussion, echoing the importance of providing teacher training on trauma-informed practices, as well as wellness for both students and staff. Escudero also commented on the pressing need to teach children social-emotional skills so they are better equipped to cope with trauma or violence.

Ron Avi Astor

Ron Avi Astor, Marjorie Crump Endowed Professor of Social Welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, concluded the discussion with several recommendations for policymakers, including shifting the narrative from a discussion of “gun violence” to a conversation about the broader handling of all weapons and threats. He discussed results from a California survey in which 8 percent of students claimed to have been threatened by a weapon, and 20–25 percent of students claimed to know or have heard about weapons in their school.  Astor advocated that the issue be approached from a public health perspective, including a more comprehensive examination of school discipline policies.

Audience members also had the opportunity to engage in an open dialogue with the panelists during a question-and-answer session. When asked to touch upon the power dynamic of having armed teachers in the classroom, Hogg responded, “It has been proven that guns in the classroom will create more violence. Raise your hand if you have ever had a teacher who you would not want to have a gun.”

The panelists were also asked what it looks like to get a community invested in trauma-informed training for police officers and school resource officers. Escudero answered, “We’re trying to have officers come spend a day in a school with a good mental health program where there’s meditation, wellness training, suicide prevention training, and threat assessment training, so they can see what that looks like.”

Following the question-and-answer session, Astor thanked the audience members for their attendance and participation, noting that “hopefully, if we come back next year, we’ll have a lot more legislation and policies that move our country forward.”

Other sponsoring organizations for this briefing include the American Psychological Association, the Brady Campaign, the Clark-Fox Policy Institute at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy, the Grand Challenges for Social Work Steering Committee, the National Association for Rural Mental Health, the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors, the National Association of Social Workers, and the School Social Work Association of America.

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