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.”


Investments in Campus Climate Paying Off

The Los Angeles Times, EdSource and KTVU News are among media outlets sharing research by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor showing a marked decline in day-to-day violence on school campuses over the last two decades. Astor attributed the findings to investments in resources to improve campus climate and access to mental health services. Nationwide, billions of dollars have been spent on social-emotional programs for students; educating teachers and staff about how to create more caring, welcoming settings; and bringing more social workers, counselors, psychologists and other “people personnel” onto campuses. “I think there’s a deep sense of disillusion that every time there’s a shooting, there’s almost a feeling that we invested all this time and energy and nothing works, that our schools are getting worse,” Astor said. But the data do not bear that out, with students reporting that they are feeling more connected and safer, he said.


Solace Found in Data on School Violence

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor wrote an op-ed for CNN that shines light on comforting data on school violence. While the contagion of mass shootings dominates the narrative on the safety of school campuses, research led by Astor shows that, overall, efforts to lessen violence in schools are working. “Our country deserves to know that mass shootings are just one part of the school safety story,” Astor wrote. “On a day-to-day basis, when looking at violence that is not related to school shootings, our kids are safer.” An expert on school safety, Astor appeared in a Swedish National Radio documentary series on campus violence and spoke to WKRN-TV in Nashville about the risks of creating a prison atmosphere in an effort to secure schools. Astor said that students who feel surveilled or see safety officers, police dogs, even see-through backpacks may come to this conclusion: “You’re the target or you’re the potential perpetrator.” 


Steep Decline in Day-to-Day School Violence UCLA study of more than 6 million students during an 18-year period finds welcome school safety news amid outburst of mass shootings

Mass shootings at schools in the United States continue to make headlines, terrifying students, parents, educators and communities. Yet groundbreaking new research shows that, during the two decades prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a steep and steady reduction in serious forms of violence, including bullying and weapon-related behaviors, across California’s middle and high school campuses.

The overall improvement in campus climate is welcome news for families concerned about sending their children to a safe environment, and it suggests that eruptions of gun violence should be treated as a separate social and psychological phenomenon, said UCLA scholar Ron Avi Astor, co-author of the study published this week in the World Journal of Pediatrics.

“Each school shooting is a devastating act that terrorizes the nation, and there is a growing sense in the public that little has changed in two decades to make schools safe,” Astor said. “But mass shootings are just one part of this story. Overall, on a day-to-day basis for most students, American schools are safer than they’ve been for many decades.”

Astor is a professor of social welfare and education at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. Using data from the confidential California Healthy Kids Survey, he and co-authors Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ilan Roziner of the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University analyzed responses from more than 6 million middle and high school students from 2001 to 2019.

“During the 18-year period examined, California secondary schools had massive reductions in all forms of victimization,” including physical threats with or without weapons, verbal and psychological abuse, and property offenses, the authors wrote. Noteworthy findings include:

  • a 56% reduction in physical fights
  • a 70% reduction in reports of carrying a gun onto school grounds, and a 68% reduction in bringing other weapons, such as a knife, to school
  • a 59% reduction in being threatened by a weapon on school grounds
  • and larger declines in victimization reported by Black and Latino students compared to white students

“These findings were evident in more than 95% of California schools, in every county, and not in wealthy suburban schools only,” Astor said.

Over time, students’ sense of safety and belonging at schools rose steadily, the study found. Astor attributed the improvement in campus climate to new policies, stepped-up resources and community efforts prioritizing the development of emotional maturity in youth.

The authors noted that the study covered the period before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools across the country, which may have triggered some mental health issues and outbursts of violence.

“It is important to learn from the policies and interventions that have helped reduce school violence in the last two decades to face these new challenges,” the authors wrote.

Astor on ‘Contagion’ of School Shootings

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, an authority on school violence, spoke to media outlets in the United States and abroad after a mass shooting at a Nashville school that left three 9-year-olds and three adults dead. Astor told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the world is exhausted at what feels like a never-ending string of tragedies targeting children. Even as new research shows that day-to-day violence on school campuses has declined, mass shootings are on the rise. “I think what we’re experiencing right now, worldwide, is a contagion,” Astor said. People who tend to be suicidal and obsessed with firearms are “actually trying to break records and create a sense of terror in society and perhaps the world so that their names will be remembered.” Astor also spoke to Reuters, The 19th and Voice of America Eurasia (around minute 48) on topics including the Nashville shooter’s profile and the need to adopt safety measures without creating a militarized environment on campuses.


Astor on Reimagining School Safety

Ron Avi Astor, professor of social welfare, co-authored an article on reimagining school safety for the American Federation of Teachers. Adapted from a chapter in the book “Our Children Can’t Wait: The Urgency of Reimagining Education Policy in America,” the article focuses on the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent forms of racial activism within the K-12 education spectrum. Astor and co-author Heather Reynolds promote creating sustainable systems and infrastructure to combat inequities within higher education. Through implementing mental health and student outreach resources, schools can address ongoing issues with victimization across campuses. For change to happen, there must be “a shift of funding and support from policing, punishment and surveillance to long-term investments in holistic prevention and empowerment of schools and communities,” the authors write.


‘No Child Should Be Killed by Going to School’

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat after a 16-year-old student was stabbed to death during a classroom fight at a Sonoma County high school. While the nation has seen an increase in mass shootings on campuses, school violence more broadly has declined by more than 50% over the past two decades, Astor said. But he added, “Our norms are that this shouldn’t happen at all. No child should be killed by going to school.” Research on school violence often focuses on firearms, not knives and stabbings, he said. “It’s a concern because almost every child has access to a knife.” Tracking and analyzing data is key to understanding what interventions and policies work, said Astor, whose research has shown that providing schools with resources including school psychologists, restorative justice programs and more extracurricular opportunities for students has helped reduce day-to-day violence on campuses across California.