$7 Million Initiative Aims to Ease Tensions on UC Campuses

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to LAist about the University of California’s decision to invest $7 million in new initiatives to support students, enhance safety and improve the climate on campus in light of recent events in Israel and Gaza. The funds will be used for emergency mental health services; employee training on freedom of expression and diversity, equity and inclusion; and campus programs that counter antisemitism and Islamophobia. “That would be very helpful,” said Astor, noting that high tensions on the UCLA campus have brought a stream of students into his office who are feeling distraught and alienated.


Astor on Schools’ Role in Preventing Bullying, Suicide

A Washington Post story about legal actions taken by parents whose bullied children took their own lives cited Ron Avi Astor, UCLA professor of social welfare and education and an expert in school safety. Many families and political leaders argue that schools have a legal obligation to keep children safe. Across the country, several parents who lost children to suicide have won financial settlements from school districts, with some campuses enacting new anti-bullying programs and policies to protect students from harm. Astor said that suicide prevention efforts are also critical, especially as students increasingly report suicidal thoughts and plans. “Schools need to know that’s a separate and really important thing to do,” he said.


When Gun Violence Erupts, Social Workers Are First Responders, Advocates and Educators

UCLA Luskin’s Ron Avi Astor spoke to Social Work Advocates for an article on the role of social workers when gun violence erupts on America’s streets and in schools, churches and homes. Social workers are both first responders and providers of continuing care. They also conduct research, lobby Congress and promote education on the responsible use of firearms. Astor, professor of social welfare and education, shared his research on strategies to prevent school shootings, including a study on the effectiveness of interventions implemented in California. “To our surprise, the numbers showed that there was a dramatic reduction, a huge, huge reduction in day-to-day victimization of kids in California over this 20-year period,” Astor said. “That’s an important story to get out there. What social workers are doing actually matters to kids in their day-to-day lives.”


UCLA, Hebrew University Receive $1.3 Million in Grants for Collaboration to Deter School Violence

Grants from The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation and an anonymous donor will support a new partnership between UCLA and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem focused on developing school violence prevention strategies that ensure that campuses are safe and welcoming places for children worldwide. The UCLA-HU Collaboration for Safe Schools is a $1.3 million, two-year pilot program connecting university students, scholars and practitioners globally and across disciplines to share research and insights related to the complex underlying causes of school violence. Through exchange programs and conferences held on each campus, the partnership will bring top U.S. and Israeli scholars together with K-12 educators, administrators and social workers; policymakers and experts in law and criminology; and graduate and undergraduate students focused on fields related to social education. The first conference, to be held at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will focus on how to ensure safety at schools in areas that are experiencing extreme strife at the political and social levels. Recruitment of partnering research teams at Hebrew University and UCLA will begin in the fall of 2023. The program will operate under the leadership of two internationally recognized experts in school safety: Ron Avi Astor, UCLA professor of social welfare and education, has worked with thousands of schools to reduce victimization of students in a career spanning three decades. Mona Khoury-Kassabri, chair of Hebrew University’s school of social work and social welfare, is also the university’s vice president of strategy and diversity. 

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Read the January 2023 Luskin Forum story about Astor’s work


Astor on Clashing Strategies for Making Schools Safer

UCLA Luskin school safety expert Ron Avi Astor spoke to USA Today about dueling strategies for addressing gun violence on campus. Many schools have increased the presence of police officers and metal detectors, while others prioritize social-emotional learning, which teaches students self-awareness, empathy and resilience. “You have these two genres – the zero-tolerance policies and making each school look like a little prison on one side. Ironically, you have – at the same time – the opposite vision of making school a more loving and caring and supportive place,” said Astor, a professor of social welfare and education. Tapping into both methods at once may create an atmosphere that is confusing to students, he said, recommending that schools adopt a single, consistent approach. Astor added that rates of bullying, fights and drug use in schools have significantly decreased over the past 20 years, largely due to a stronger connection to community resources, the hiring of more social workers and prioritization of student empowerment.


Astor Discusses Expectations on School Security Officers During Mass Shootings

UCLA Luskin Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to BBC News about the trial of Scot Peterson, a school security officer who chose to take cover rather than storm into a school building in 2018 to confront a gunman in Parkland, Florida. Peterson stood trial for neglect of a child in relation to his decisions during a mass shooting incident in which 17 people died and 17 more were injured. Recurring tragedies like the Parkland shooting have put law enforcement officers under intense pressure to engage directly with armed assailants, but “is it a reasonable thing to do for somebody who’s not a SWAT team member, or trained in the military?” said Astor, an expert in school violence. Noting that even highly trained police officers call for backup in dangerous situations, Astor said confronting active shooters is too much to expect of school employees. On June 29, Peterson was found not guilty on all counts.


Honors Project Takes a Deep Dive Into Pandemic Anxieties

Members of UCLA’s class of 2023 will be the first to graduate having spent most, if not all, of their academic years living through a pandemic — and all the uncertainties, anxieties, and physical and mental health challenges that has entailed. Among those graduates will be psychology major and public affairs minor Leah Likin, who mined these experiences for her highly original and deeply personal honors capstone project, which won a Dean’s Prize for Excellence in Research and Creativity as part of UCLA’s 10th annual Undergraduate Research Week. Likin’s struggles with mental health during the pandemic — which at their worst necessitated inpatient psychiatric treatment — served as a springboard for the ambitious project. In addition to more traditional research and data collection, Likin incorporated poetry, personal writing and an art installation created at UCLA’s high-tech MakerSpace workshop. Her project included interviews with 15 people, ranging in age from 20 to 86, about a number of topics, including COVID-19, mental health, climate change, perception of time and the use of smartphones. Likin said these conversations helped her unpack her own mental health burdens. “It was interesting to explore my sense of loss and my sense of belonging during that time, and also my growth and sense of identity,” she said. Her advisor was Ron Avi Astor, UCLA Luskin professor of social welfare. Likin said she was inspired by how Astor would often read his poetry about his family’s mental health struggles during the multidisciplinary undergraduate course “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools.” — Madeline Adamo

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Seeking a Clear, Coordinated Vision on School Safety

UCLA Luskin Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor shared insights from his decades of research into school safety strategies on “Our Children Can’t Wait,” a UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools podcast that is a companion to the book of the same name. “I think we’re in a state of confusion in our country, not just politically but actually on what the purpose of schools is supposed to be,” said Astor, who co-authored a chapter in the book. Instead of adopting a hodgepodge of policies that satisfy competing interests, school districts should set a clear and culturally sensitive philosophy that invites participation by families and communities, he said. Astor, frequently called on by news outlets covering school safety issues, also spoke with The Hill about the rise in student misbehavior and the sometimes-traumatizing effects of active shooter drills, and with Higher Ed Dive about steps college campuses are taking to prevent mass shootings.


Making Sense of School Safety News, Good and Bad

Students from across UCLA gathered at the Luskin School on April 27 to hear school safety expert Ron Avi Astor’s insights on a complex question: If the overall level of violence on California campuses is in steep decline, why do we continue to see mass shootings that take young lives and terrorize communities? After decades of research, Astor has concluded that the two realities should be considered separate phenomena. The shootings, perpetrated by troubled individuals seeking lasting fame, dominate headlines, and Astor shared that he, too, had feared for the safety of his grandchildren when they started preschool. Yet his newly published research analyzing survey responses of more than 6 million California middle and high school students from 2001 to 2019 showed dramatic declines in physical fights and weapons-related behaviors, as well as non-physical types of victimization such as harassment and bullying. Astor pointed to stepped-up investment in improving campus climate over the last two decades, including the placement of more social workers, psychologists, counselors and other service providers on school campuses. These professionals have had a great impact on creating safe and welcoming schools but don’t get credit for all the work they have done to protect children, Astor told the students from UCLA’s social welfare, education, public health, law and other programs. Still, firearms remain in our midst, and Astor suggested that gun safety education, including licensing requirements, is one step communities can take to protect residents. “Let’s not let the school shootings take over the whole story and militarize our schools, which is really my greatest concern,” he said.

Lessons From California’s Record of Reducing School Violence

News outlets including the Christian Science Monitor, Salon, LAist and K-12 Dive covered research led by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor showing that day-to-day violence at middle and high school campuses in California has declined significantly over the past two decades. Some experts are looking at California’s expansion of social services and behavioral programs, to assess whether it could be a model for bringing down rates of school violence in other states. “When you look at the number of school social workers, psychologists, counselors that have been hired in these 18 years, it’s dramatic,” Astor told LAist’s “Air Talk.” He said the interplay between increasing instances of school shootings and decreasing reports of overall violence is a complicated one. “Kids could say, ‘My school is safe, my teachers are treating me well’ … and also be afraid at the same time of being shot at school in some random event.”