A rational approach for schools to end gun violence

Don't 'harden' schools. Make them softer, by improving social and emotional health
By: and | May 11, 2018

After the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Matthew Mayer and Shane Jimerson knew they had some work to do. Mayer, from the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, and Jimerson, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, both specialize in studying school violence.

“In 2006, there were several school shootings, and we put out a position statement” says Mayer. “But this time we felt it was more important to take an action-oriented approach.”

Nearly two weeks later—with help from some of the leading experts in the field—the two shaped a detailed, eight-point “Call for Action To Prevent Gun Violence In The United States of America.” Among other things, the document calls for improving mental health and modifying laws about sharing information.

More than 300 universities, several large school districts, and well over 4,000 individual experts have signed on to support this document in the weeks since.

Your Call for Action differs from what pundits and lawmakers have offered. You’re not advocating arming teachers or putting buckets of rocks in the classroom.

No, nothing in that direction. One of the ideas here is that we have to start working together on comprehensive approaches to change, and it will take time.

Some of this has to do with access to guns, and there are some common sense things that we talk about, such as making sure that people who are known to be dangerous and unstable do not have access to guns. That’s a no-brainer.

In terms of universal background checks, we all know there are so many loopholes, such as gun shows and other things, where people who really shouldn’t have access to guns can get them. We’re not going to magically turn this situation around because we have close to 300 million firearms in this country, but you have to start somewhere.

So where do we start?

We can work on a lot of these issues at the same time. For example, making sure every school community has a threat assessment committee that also works on getting help to the young people who need it.

For example, if you look at the after-the-fact analysis of what happened at Parkland, we know that the educational system, the criminal justice system and the mental health system all had vitally important information about that kid, but there was no mechanism where they would sit down in the same place and share this information.

In your Call to Action you talk about removing legal barriers to sharing information. What are those barriers?

The primary barriers are HIPAA and FERPA privacy acts. Schools are not allowed to release information to other parties unless there’s a signed permission form from the parents. But changing that won’t be easy, because you have to work out the parameters so this information doesn’t get abused.

The main idea is, you have a community-based team dealing with threat assessment—that would typically include education, law enforcement and mental health. The team needs access immediately to relevant information in cases where there’s a plausible threat.

If we can work on relaxing parts of the HIPAA and FERPA laws in certain circumstances, these threat assessment teams can have access to critical information. There’s a balance there between protecting individual rights and the larger public, but it’s something we know we have to work on.

You don’t want to find out after the shooting what you needed to know a week before.

You call for adequate staffing of school psychologists, social workers and counselors. But many districts, and even counselors, say there’s simply no money for that. Some counselors even work at several schools in a district, spending one day here, one day there.

That’s right. We know that some of these kids at Parkland are on waiting lists to get to talk to a counselor. They can’t even get in. That’s bad news. My grad students who are going to be teachers are already spending time in the schools. They were saying exactly what you just said.

They were in a class and there was a kid who was at high risk for behavioral outbursts. The teacher said, “I hope he doesn’t have a meltdown today, because the counselor is at the other school today.” They have one counselor for two elementary schools.

At some point this goes to a larger issue: Do we want to make things better? Apart from all the soundbites from politicians about how horrible it is, do we have the will to change?

All the marches and rallies that took place in March seem to indicate that there is public will at least.

I hope so. My wife and I went up to Princeton, and there was a high-energy rally next to the library in the square, maybe 5,000 people. It was amazing to see all the different people coming together. That same thing was going on in about 90 percent of the congressional districts in the country.

Is that enough to make lawmakers actually do something?

Members of Congress would have to feel that their reelection is threatened before they will change their posture. If this movement grows, I believe it might be possible to have that happen.

I think those students who are working on this are terrific. I have the greatest respect for them, and those who are actively engaged in planning and logistics will learn so much from this.

I spent a number of years doing street-level organizing in D.C., and I learned more through those experiences than I learned in any classroom. These are skills that will stay with you for life, so it’s an alternate type of education. I hope that their schools realize this.

They can say, “You know, maybe we should work with some of these students and treat this as an alternative work-study activity, where they can still earn their credits while doing this.”

There’s no reason you can’t write a report—about the planning and design and execution of your activism campaign—that counts for both social studies and English language arts credit.

You also say, “Congress and the Executive Branch must remove barriers to gun violence research.”

A lot of it is the CDC. Now, ironically, there was a line in the recent $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill, signed into law, that gave CDC permission to do gun violence research—but they didn’t give them any money. They had been blocked from doing that for many years. Now they can, but without funding.

Where do you go from here?

We’re planning an action brief on each of our eight points and disseminating them to places where it is seen as more than just a statement. We want to summarize what we know about this, why is it important, what do we need to do, and how can we get it done.

We’re also trying to connect with different groups, including student activists, to share our knowledge base and our information with them, and to cooperate in any way we can. I’m hoping that there’s greater cross-pollination between different groups of activists and researchers.

Can district leaders get involved?

There are many district administrators who would love to provide much better support to their students, in terms of counseling and mental health. But they say, “I’ve got no money. I have to decide whether I’m devoting resources for a para-pro to support one kid for half a day, or to work with a group of five kids on reading.”

So, whether you’re talking about reading or school safety, you first need both the will to change and the ability to make tough decisions about resources. The sad thing is, in March we learned that the Department of Justice eliminated all of the school safety research money. Are you aware of that?

I was not.

After the Sandy Hook tragedy, the Department of Justice had devoted $175 million over three years for two program.