Astor on Aggression Targeting School Staff

Several media outlets reached out to Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor to provide context to a new report by the American Psychological Association (APA) on the alarming levels of harassment and threats experienced by school staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Astor, a member of the APA task force that conducted the research, spoke to NPR’s Morning Edition, CBS Los Angeles, K-12 Dive and The 74 about the “pressure-cooker” atmosphere in the nation’s schools. “Schools were and still are a battleground,” he said. “COVID is symbolic of all these larger cultural layers that filter into every classroom, every school in the country.” Astor also appeared at a March 17 congressional briefing on the study, and noted that school staffs are “just underfunded, understaffed and do not have enough help organizationally to create a positive, healthy environment.” The report, which received national attention from NBC News and EdWeek, among other outlets, recommended comprehensive research-based solutions to improve the campus environment for both students and staff.


School Personnel Report Threats, Harassment During Pandemic

Professor Ron Avi Astor and a team from UCLA Luskin Social Welfare contributed to research on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on teachers and other school staff as part of a task force launched by the American Psychological Association. In a report released today, the task force found that approximately one-third of teachers surveyed said they had experienced at least one incident of verbal harassment or threat of violence from students during the pandemic. Almost 50% of the teachers expressed a plan or desire to quit or transfer jobs, according to the report, based on a nationwide survey of 14,966 teachers, administrators, school psychologists, social workers and other pre-K through 12th grade school staff. “This was one of the first studies we know of that looked at how both COVID-19 and issues of school safety impacted all school personnel,” said Astor, who holds a joint appointment with the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. “School staff such as bus drivers, janitors, secretaries, yard aides, crossing guards and cafeteria workers are often left out of these large national studies. Their voices are so important and commonly ignored.” The APA task force will present its findings at a congressional briefing today at 2 p.m. EDT,  joined by several national co-sponsoring organizations. The UCLA team that contributed to the findings included Hector Palencia of the Social Welfare field education faculty and doctoral students Laura Liévano-Karim, Natalie Fensterstock, Chaoyue Wu, Kate Watson and Sawyer Hogenkamp. Gordon Capp of CSU Fullerton was also part of the UCLA team. — Joanie Harmon

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Yaroslavsky on Newsom’s Message to California

Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin, spoke to CBS2 News ahead of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2022 State of the State address. Californians are concerned about pressing issues including homelessness, public safety and criminal justice reform, Yaroslavsky said. “The average person does not see the progress that’s been made, and I think that’s what the governor has to address,” he said. On the state’s response to COVID-19, “There’s a lot that went right with it just as there was a lot that went wrong with it. He ought to thank the people of California for what they’ve done to put this, so far, in the rear-view mirror.” Newsom survived a recall attempt last year and is running for re-election. Yarsoslavsky commented, “Now people are asking the question, ‘What are you going to do going forward? What’s your plan? You’re asking us to re-up you for another four-year contract. What are you promising and what can you deliver?’ ”


Tilly on Job Insecurity Even Amid a Labor Crunch

Urban Planning Chair Chris Tilly spoke to the New York Times about “just-in-time scheduling,” a labor practice based on customer demand that leads to great fluctuations in employee work hours. While some part-time workers prefer the flexibility of this model, many say it leaves them with too little income or an erratic schedule delivered on short notice. Nationwide, companies are complaining that they can’t fill jobs. Offering more full-time jobs would create a more stable work force, but many businesses are resistant to doing so, believing that the market will correct itself. Tilly said the increased reliance on part-time workers, particularly in the retail and hospitality industries, began decades ago, in part because of the mass entry of women into the work force. “A light bulb went on one day. ‘If we’re expanding part-time schedules, we don’t have to offer benefits, we can offer a lower wage rate,'” he explained.

Circumvention of Censorship in China Has Increased During COVID-19 Pandemic People who broke through firewalls to seek health information also gained access to long-banned political content, study finds

By Mary Braswell

A study co-authored by Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs shows that more people in China circumvented censorship restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, opening a gateway to a trove of sensitive and long-hidden information.

Published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research identifies a spike in China-based activity on Twitter and Wikipedia, two platforms long banned by the government in Beijing.

The authors analyzed changes in the number of followers of popular accounts and traffic to certain Wikipedia pages to determine that, in addition to seeking news and information about the pandemic, users found sensitive information about China’s politics, history and human rights record.

During a crisis, the search for information increases under any form of governance, but leaders who use censorship as a tool to suppress dissent face heightened risks, said Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor of public policy.

In China, the search for COVID-19-related information motivated individuals to find ways to skirt government-imposed regulations and technologies that block internet use. As a result, they gained access to censored material that government leaders perceive as damaging, he said.

“If I were one of those leaders I would find this alarming because it’s something that I can’t control.”

Researchers used Twitter to examine a sample of Chinese-language accounts whose self-reported locations are in mainland China, as well as an app-tracking service. They identified several trends, including:

  • an uptick in the number of people accessing technologies that would enable them to jump the Great Firewall, China’s network of restrictions on internet access;
  • Facebook becoming the 250th most downloaded app in China, up from the 600th, and Twitter becoming the 200th most downloaded app, up from the 575th, according to estimates;
  • a 10% long-term increase in the number of accounts from China using Twitter;
  • a greater than expected growth in followers — compared to users in Hong Kong, which was not under lockdown at the time — for accounts that tweet in Chinese, including international news agencies (31%), citizen journalists (42%), activists (28%) and pornography feeds that are generally banned in China (8%); and
  • increased viewership of Chinese-language Wikipedia pages on sensitive topics such as artist-activist Ai Weiwei and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The authors also uncovered nuances in Twitter usage. Their analysis of the content of the tweets alone suggested no effect — positive or negative — of the COVID-19 crisis. Digging deeper, however, they found that users who post only innocuous, nonpolitical tweets might still follow foreign news media, pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong or Taiwan, Chinese citizen-journalists or other banned Twitter accounts.

“As far as we can tell, the Chinese government has been relying on what people say to monitor the population,” Steinert-Threlkeld said. “But we show in this paper that people also reveal their sentiments by who they follow.”

The paper’s other authors are Keng-Chi Chang and Margaret E. Roberts of UC San Diego and William R. Hobbs of Cornell University.

The researchers note in the paper that Beijing’s crackdown on citizens who comment on banned platforms has become increasingly repressive over the last several years.

“While the results here do not link the COVID-19 crisis gateway effect to the political fortunes of the Chinese government, they do suggest that a country with a highly censored environment sees distinctive and wide-ranging increases in information access during crisis,” they conclude.

Reber on Link Between High COVID Risk and Vaccine Hesitancy

Quartz spoke with Associate Professor of Public Policy Sarah Reber about her study finding that the political environment outside a skilled nursing facility did not strongly predict the likelihood that its residents were vaccinated against COVID-19. Politics might be expected to seep into nursing home environments, Reber said, especially because many of the residents suffer from cognitive decline and have substitute decision-makers — often adult children and other family members who live nearby — who must give consent before a resident can be inoculated. Reber said the extreme threat COVID-19 poses to older adults could be one factor at play. “It does seem like the higher the risk, the less politicized vaccination is,” she said. In an article for Brookings, Reber and co-author Cyrus Kosar of Brown University also found wide disparities in states’ effectiveness in delivering life-saving vaccines, including flu shots, to nursing home residents, but the reason for this gap is unclear.

Astor on Schools’ Role in Protecting Students, Preventing Violence

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to the Los Angeles Times about pandemic-related factors behind reports of tension, misbehavior and violence on school campuses. Students who returned to in-person learning after a long period of isolation may have also experienced food and housing insecurity, mental health issues and other stressors, Astor noted, so schools should be well-positioned to support students on many levels. “Historically, schools have also played the role of creating a better society and a better world,” he said. “This is the right time to retreat back to that.” A K-12 Dive article on who bears responsibility for preventing violence on campus also cited Astor. He recommended that everybody — including teachers, staff, administrators, peers, parents and law enforcement — be trained to spot and properly respond to students who display red flags, including an obsession with firearms; signs of depression and suicidal ideation; having a plan to hurt themselves or others; and troubling social media posts.


Leap on Factors Fueling Spike in Violent Crime in L.A.

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to KPCC’s AirTalk about factors fueling a rise in violent crime in Los Angeles. In the wake of COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd and economic uncertainty that has put food and shelter at risk for many, “the bottom line is people feel out of control,” Leap said. “And some people who feel out of control act out of control.” A sense of hopelessness, combined with the proliferation of lethal weapons in the United States, has led to a high death count that has had a devastating impact on women and children in particular, with trauma reverberating through years, if not decades, she said. Leap said she hopes the upcoming Los Angeles mayor’s race puts pressure on leaders to come up with innovative approaches to public safety, such as expanding gang intervention and community outreach. “This is really an all-hands-on-deck problem,” she said. 

Roy on ‘Impoverishment and Abandonment’ on L.A. Streets

The Guardian, CalMatters and other media outlets spotlighted a study from the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy that gauged the death toll among Los Angeles County’s unhoused population during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between March 2020 and July 2021, nearly 1,500 people died on the streets or in outdoor spaces including freeway underpasses, parks, sidewalks, dumpsters, abandoned buildings, bus stops, tents, riverbeds, railroads and encampments, the study found. The number does not include those who died in hospitals, shelters or cars. The CalMatters piece focused on the most common cause of death: accidental overdose. The Guardian noted that the average age of unhoused residents who died was 47, a finding that II&D Director Ananya Roy found particularly disturbing. “We’ve got to get serious about using that metric to understand the levels of impoverishment and abandonment here in the U.S.,” she said. The Independent, Planetizen and Insider were among other media covering the study.


Shah on COVID-19 Vaccination Incentives That Backfire

Media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Marketplace and San Francisco Chronicle reported on research co-authored by Public Policy Professor Manisha Shah that found that incentive programs — including the offer of money — have little impact on COVID-19 vaccination rates. The researchers randomly offered study participants, all members of the Medicaid program in Contra Costa County, various incentives: public health messages, vaccination appointments and either $10 or $50. Vaccination rates did not rise, and in some cases the offer of cash may have made some vaccine-hesitant people more distrustful. Shah, director of the Global Lab for Research in Action at UCLA Luskin, told the Chronicle that the financial incentive may have sent a negative signal, leading participants to think, “ ‘If I should trust the vaccine and get it, why do you have to pay me for it?’ ” The findings by the research team from UCLA, USC and Contra Costa’s Health Services agency were published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.