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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


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What we do and don't know about mass shootings

July 5, 2018

ASU statistician focuses on discovering the factors that cause gun violence

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

Any news organization could tell you that guns are almost always a timely topic. Hardly a year has gone by over the past decade when there wasn’t a mass shooting, and in 2018 alone, there have already been several major incidents.

Sherry Towers, a statistician, modeler and research professor at Arizona State University, began her academic career studying the spread of disease in populations. As mass shootings began to occur more frequently in the U.S., she wondered if contagion might have something to do with it. So she shifted her focus to discovering more about the factors that cause such events in the hopes of finding ways to prevent them.

Without government funding to support that research, it hasn’t been easy.

“After every one of these high-profile shootings, particularly ones that involve kids, people want something done, but whatever gets done should be evidence-based,” Towers said. “The way you get evidence-based solutions is you fund the science that develops those solutions.”

Despite the lack of resources, Towers and her colleagues have spent much of their spare time researching the topic. Recently, she shared with ASU Now some of what she has learned along the way.


Sherry Towers

Question: Your background is in the spread of disease in populations. How did that lead to you study mass shootings?

Answer: I was collaborating with people at Purdue University and went there to meet with them in January of 2014. There was a school shooting at the university that day, so the meeting was canceled. One student killed another student. We never did find out why he did it, and he committed suicide in jail. It occurred to me that day there had been about three school shootings in a 10-day period. Even for the U.S., that was a lot. So I started to wonder if contagion was playing a role. I talked to my colleagues about looking at school shootings from a contagion perspective, applying modeling methods of looking at disease to looking at this topic. The way it manifests is in an unusual bunching in time around the higher-profile events, the ones that get the most media coverage.

Q: Many point to Columbine as the beginning of the mass shooting phenomena in America. Would you say that’s accurate?

A: I think what was different about Columbine is that it was happening in a high school and had a high casualty count. Columbine was certainly not the beginning (of the phenomenon); there were mass shootings before. But because it was kids that got killed — and you see that with Newtown, for instance — it was very impactful on the American consciousness, and it inspired debate on gun control. Whenever there are kids involved it tends to be a particularly impactful event.

Q: Have instances of mass shootings increased exponentially since then?

A: No, they haven’t increased exponentially. What’s interesting is that in regard to mass shootings — not just in schools, but mass shootings where at least four people were killed — there were a total of six over the past 10 years: The one at Northern Illinois University in 2008; Oakland (Oikos University) and Newtown in 2012; the Elliot Rodger incident in 2014; another incident in Maryville, Washington that year; then the Roseburg, Oregon shooting (Umpqua Community College). That’s only up to the end of 2017, not including 2018. Out of those six, two were at K-12 schools: Newtown and the one in Maryville, Washington. So what’s interesting about this current year — and as a statistician, it’s dangerous to make an inference about only two events — but what’s interesting is that over the past 10 years, we had only six mass shootings, and in the first five months of 2018, we’ve had two.

Q: Do you have any idea why this might be happening?

A: It might be partially contagion playing a role. And even though analysis shows there was this approximately two-week contagion period (within which a shooting happens and someone else is inspired to copy it), some events inspire similar ones long past the dates at which they occurred. There was evidence this latest shooter (at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas) dressed like the Columbine shooter (he wore a black trench coat).

So he clearly had some inspiration from the Columbine event, even though it was long past. So then the question isn’t what event inspired them, but what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? What led them to perpetrate on the day that they did? It could be the media effect, that they were exposed to media stories about an event that happened in the relatively recent past that perhaps consciously or subconsciously influenced them to ideate this thing. We don’t know what inspired the Parkland shooter to suddenly snap on the day he did. But contagion may be playing a role. And there is an increasing access to weaponry. In the case of this latest shooting in Santa Fe, it involved a shotgun and a revolver; it certainly wasn’t an automatic weapon. But in the case of Parkland, a young teenager was able to get a hold of very high-powered weaponry, very easily. If you go back 10–15 years, that kind of weaponry was not as easily available.

Q: Are there similarities in mass shootings in terms of the type of people who perpetrate them and how they are perpetrated? Or is that a misconception?

A: One thing we do know is that there is this misconception that most mass shooters are white. They’re certainly male; the overwhelming majority are male. But there is a misconception that they are overwhelmingly white. That is not true. Their ethnic and racial mix is approximately what you find in the general public.

As far as how they’re perpetrated, there are very few people in the U.S. looking at these issues, and the reason for that is there is a real lack of federal funding for it. Since the 1990s there has been a congressional moratorium preventing federal funding from going to the CDC for any kind of study that might by default promote gun control. If you are a researcher looking at the cause and effects of these events, one of the things you’re going to look at is not just demographics but availability of types of firearms that were used. And that’s what Congress is saying researchers cannot look at. That has had a huge suppressive effect on this research. When you have this dearth of funding, there’s a whole bunch of things that need to be looked at that can't. The other problem is a lack of data on anything to do with firearms. For years there’s been pressure from gun lobbyists to suppress any data that might be able to inform what kinds of guns are out there and how they’re being used.