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Addressing our knowledge gaps about firearm injuries and deaths

July 5, 2018

ASU participating in National Institutes of Health study on gun violence and homicide

Editor's note: This is part of a series investigating gun violence from many angles.

Sometimes, it's hard to admit that we don't have all the answers, especially when it comes to gun violence.

Which is where research comes in.

Jesenia Pizarro is an associate professor in ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. She studies homicide and is one of 20 researchers from a dozen universities and health-care organizations taking part in an interdisciplinary study on firearm injuries and deaths of children and teens. The $5 million project is funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

ASU Now spoke with Pizarro to learn more about what questions the study hopes to answer.

Question: Why do people kill each other? 

Answer: Because there are so many types of homicides, with multiple types of motives, there are multiple reasons for why they occur. A drug homicide will be different from an intimate-partner homicide, which will be different from someone killing their child. One of the things we do know is that if we want to understand why these crimes occur, we have to get to the bottom of the events or crimes that lead to a homicide. And that will be different depending on each situation. Without understanding that, we can’t effectively try to prevent future occurrences. 

Q: Are there any circumstances that tend to lead to more homicides? 

A: Yes, situationally, there are things that increase the risk of a homicide taking place, and this is different from someone’s motive. A motive might be that a husband wants to kill his wife. But situationally, we know that crime facilitators such as alcohol, drugs and the availability of firearms increase the risk of a homicide taking place. If you have a firearm, you are more likely to use it. Of all the traditional types of weapons you can use, firearms are the most lethal. So, the availability of a firearm increases the odds of a homicide incident occurring. 

Q: Has there been enough research on firearm violence to fully understand the problem? 

A: No. There has not been a lot of research funding for the study of firearm violence, and this has been mostly for political reasons. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant that is funding our study is the largest NIH funding commitment in the past 20 years. It is meant to support research into understanding the knowledge gaps in firearm violence research, informing a research agenda, and identifying best practices in the reduction of firearm violence among children and youths. 

Q: Why is it important to do this kind of research? 

A: There is a lot of rhetoric around gun violence. But researchers have not been able to put together a background of objective research that can outline factors that increase incidents of gun violence in recent years. Research is important because you need to understand exactly what you’re tackling before you give a response.

For example, let’s say we want to decrease homicides, and one hypothetical policy proposal might be to focus on open-air drug markets. Well, not all homicides are caused by open-air drug markets, so you may be putting money into an aspect of the problem that may not benefit the entire scope of the problem. That path wouldn’t help mothers who are mentally ill who kill their infant children, or victims of intimate-partner homicides.

To put it in everyday terms, let’s say your car does not start tomorrow. You just don’t blindly put a new battery in. You take it to the auto shop to be checked in order to identify why the car did not start, and then fix the specific problem. That is what we are trying to do with this line of research. 

Leslie Minton

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No quick fix to shootings, but focus on 'school climate' will show support, ASU expert says

ASU expert pushes focus on social-emotional support in schools to stem violence.
July 5, 2018

Researcher finds that more counselors, programming improves behavioral health

Editor's note: This is part of a series investigating gun violence from many angles.

School safety has become an urgent topic among researchers as more than 20 schools around the country have seen firearm incidents in 2018.

Sarah Lindstrom Johnson, an assistant professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University, has been researching school climate for years. A former high school teacher in Baltimore, she studies school environments and how they affect student learning.

She is working on new research, which will be published soon, on students’ perceptions of school security measures.

She’s also developing a smartphone application based on the survey tool she developed called the School Assessment for Environmental Typology, or SAfETy.

Lindstrom Johnson, who has a background in adolescent development and a doctorate in public health, answered some questions from ASU Now about school safety.

Sarah Lindstrom Johnson

Question: What is school climate?

Answer: As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, school climate is a very broad construct and it includes perceptions of safety; students’ engagement, which is based on perceptions of belonging and feeling connected to the school; and relationships with the staff. It also includes the expectations, rules and norms around behavior. It also can include supports for mental health, violence-prevention programming such as anti-bullying programing, and it does include the physical environment.

Q: Can focusing on school climate help prevent school shootings?

A: If you ask me my general response to school shootings, it’s that I don’t think there’s a Band-Aid fix.

I testified against SB 1519, which was to spend money on school resource officers and that was because there is no evidence that school resource officers make schools safer. I’m not saying they don’t. I’m saying we don’t have the evidence to support that.

However, we do have evidence that putting social-emotional supports in schools, whether it be counselors, programs, etc., improves students’ mental health, it improves their behavioral health, it improves their academics.

So if you’re asking me where I would spend my money, as a scientist, the best bet in the long run in terms of keeping schools safer is in improving school climate. It’s not only that students’ mental health needs are met but also you’re creating environments where students are connected and engaged and succeeding.

I think a well-trained school resource officer can be an asset, but as a scientist, I don’t have information that they’re related to reduced general violence in schools, like bullying or peer victimization, which is the majority of violence that happens at schools, or has deterred a school shooting. I wish I did because that would be an easier fix.

Q: How do you improve school climate?

A: I have been working with schools in Maryland for the past decade on an intervention to improve school climate. It is couched within Positive Behavioral Intervention and SupportsPositive Behavior Intervention and Supports is a system of guiding students’ behaviors. The framework uses preventive measures and data analysis to avoid or de-escalate problems., which is basically, "How do we use data to identify needs of students and ensure that the programming is being implemented to meet those needs?"

We developed a climate survey that all of our schools took, and the intervention is that we sent coaches to the schools to help them use that data and implement PBIS schoolwide and make sure they had the additional supports present.

One trial is in high schools, and one is in middle schools. The high school trial is the first randomized control trial of PBIS in high schools, and we’re seeing positive results.

Q: What about cost?

A: You have to put people in schools to do this, and you have to have funding for the services. A lot of the barrier is that the schools don’t have the resources to deal with it.

This is a long-term solution that involves investment in schools. It involves thinking about school shootings as part of a bigger puzzle of supporting students’ social-emotional needs.

Q: What about the actual design of the school buildings?

A: I’m now working with the Association for Learning Environments, the school architects’ association. We are working on a rewrite of “Safe Schools: A Best Practices Guide,” which is their recommendation of the design features that should be in schools to make them safe.

Most of the focus has been around these rampage shootings, but I’m on the subcommittee that’s trying to balance those safety considerations with considerations to make sure that students still feel that they’re in a learning environment.

For example, open spaces with lots of windows and light is something that facilitates a good learning environment. But you can see how that is a security risk.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News