In the aftermath of the fatal shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor joined the hosts of an EdSource Radio podcast to discuss the importance of school climate and social-emotional learning. Astor argued that law enforcement measures like metal detectors and random searches increase the school-to-prison pipeline and should be used judiciously, if ever. Instead, Astor recommended softening schools to create a better school climate and improve social-emotional learning. Astor pointed out the irony of school drills that assume that the shooter is an outsider, when most of the school shootings that have occurred in the United States have come from current or former students who have a grievance with the school or the school population. “It’s a misnomer that we’re protecting against outside terrorist groups,” Astor said. “The shooters themselves are learning exactly where the students are going, and they know all the drills.”
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, an authority on school safety, spoke with media outlets including CBS News, NBC4 News and KNX1070 in the wake of the deadly shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita. Astor recently presented a report to Congress on reducing weapons in schools, based on data collected from California high schools. Among the findings was a startling statistic: Students at nearly 90% of high schools surveyed said they had seen weapons on campus. Astor said early intervention when warning signs appear is key, and schools must create a caring environment that encourages staff and students to come forward. “If we can actually get schools to see that this is their job, this is what they do, this is not just a prevention for shooting, this makes a better society, then we think we’ll see a massive reduction” in the most severe acts of violence on campus, Astor told NBC4.
Listen to Astor’s podcast on reducing weapons in schools.
Chris Zepeda-Millán, associate professor of public policy, spoke with the Houston Chronicle about a campaign strategy shift by Beto O’Rourke. Since the Aug. 3 mass shooting in his hometown El Paso by a man who warned of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” the Democratic presidential hopeful has focused his message on racist violence, and held President Trump accountable for stoking it. This may be an attempt to jumpstart O’Rourke’s lagging campaign or set himself up as a vice presidential pick, some analysts said. “There’s nothing about him anymore that stands out,” Zepeda-Millán said. “He’s not a person of color, he’s not a woman, he’s not the most progressive candidate by far. He doesn’t have anything to set himself apart.” Zepeda- Millán concluded: “This is kind of a last effort to stay relevant.”
Social Welfare Professor David Cohen provided context and history in a CNN report assessing the veracity of President Trump’s comments linking gun violence to the closure of mental health facilities. “They closed so many — like 92% — of the mental institutions around this country over the years, for budgetary reasons,” Trump said. Cohen clarified that, since the mid-1950s, about half of the nation’s psychiatric facilities have closed and the number of residents in state mental hospitals has fallen from about 550,000 to about 100,000 today. The facilities closed in an effort to “deinstitutionalize” the mentally ill by placing them in less restrictive environments — not because of budget cutbacks, he added. But many patients were left with nowhere to go. “Society after World War II discovered a new passion to solve social problems and include the excluded, and all sorts of institutions — including orphanages, institutions for mentally retarded persons, homes for unwed mothers, youth detention centers, etc. — were phased out, with their residents often in effect kicked out from where they had lived for years,” Cohen said.
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to Education Week about the role schools can play in preventing gun violence. Some states have enacted “red flag laws,” which allow authorities to restrict people’s access to weapons if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. Many school safety researchers say such laws should be considered just one part of a broader effort that includes improving school climate, enacting tougher federal gun laws, providing support staffing for students, and putting federal dollars toward research into the causes of gun violence. Astor said schools should also encourage students to share reports of troubling behavior — to view violence prevention as a collective responsibility — and to tackle issues such as racism, hatred and violence at an early age. “The purpose of a school becomes to have a better society,” Astor said. “I think the schools have to re-own that whole piece.”
In the wake of mass shootings in Texas, Ohio and California, Social Welfare Professor Mark Kaplan shared his expertise on gun violence with KNX InDepth. About 300 people are shot, 100 fatally, each day in the United States, and two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides, not homicides, he said. “The gun violence epidemic is not just one epidemic. It’s multiple epidemics,” he said. Limiting access to weapons could protect victims from catastrophic harm, Kaplan argued. The presence of guns “lethalize” violence and “that’s the central problem that we face today,” he said. Kaplan noted that “California is light-years ahead of most other states in terms of gun legislation” but that has not shielded it from weapons brought in across state lines. The state-by-state approach, with 50 often conflicting policies, is futile, he said. “It’s time that we begin thinking about a national approach to this problem, to this major, urgent public health problem,” he said on the program, beginning at minute 9:25.
By Stan Paul
A fatal gunshot wound. This is a slide that Mark Kaplan, professor of Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, shows early in his presentation on gun violence.
As he recites annual gun death statistics in the United States, the vivid and unsettling scene serves as a backdrop.
“This might have been a suicide, this might have been a homicide; we’re not exactly sure. All I can tell you is that it was a fatal gunshot wound,” said Kaplan who spoke on “Poverty, Inequality and Firearm Violence,” Jan. 26, 2017 at the Luskin School as part of the Public Child Welfare Seminar series.
“The reason for putting this up is because quite often the discussion about guns is sanitized.” Kaplan explained, “We often treat the issue of gun violence as an abstraction but when you talk to people who are working in emergency departments, when you talk to coroners and medical centers, this is what people tell you. This is the net effect of guns.”
Across the nation, that net effect amounts to more than 33,000 similar scenes recorded each year on average, and more than 36,000 for 2015, Kaplan reported as the latest available data. What stands out for Kaplan is that two-thirds are suicides, his area of research. Kaplan, who holds adjunct appointments in psychiatry at the Oregon Health & Science University and in epidemiology and community medicine at the University of Ottawa, focuses on using population-wide data to understand suicide risk factors and firearm violence among vulnerable populations.
“So, the problem of gun violence in this country is primarily a suicide problem, less so a homicide problem,” said Kaplan to the audience, which included future social workers who are students in the master of social welfare (MSW) program. While recognizing the spike in gun deaths in cities such as Chicago – more than 50 in January in that city alone — Kaplan said that over the past 10-15 years there has been an overall national decline in the rate of gun deaths.
Kaplan said gun ownership in the U.S. is at more than 300 million and growing, and the death rate is only part of the story. He pointed out that for all of the recorded deaths by guns, there were more than 81,000 people – more than 200 per day – injured nationwide by guns in 2014.
“There are a lot of individuals who are shot, who survive, who wind up in emergency departments, are hospitalized and often disabled for life.”
A relationship exists between the high rate of guns and gun ownership and the number of homicides, suicides and injuries. Kaplan said that work is needed “on the ground” in America’s cities, such as limiting access to guns that would “go a long way to reducing some of the fatalities that we’re experiencing both in the homicide and suicide.”
He pointed to the work of one of his doctoral students that showed almost 90 percent of suicides involved guns in some parts of the country. California is an exception, according to Kaplan, who credited the state’s stringent gun control measures.
“California is an outlier. There aren’t many states like us,” he noted, suggesting that California could serve as a role model for the rest of the country. Unfortunately, two-thirds of states fall into the quadrant with both high rates of gun violence and lax restrictions on gun ownership, he said. “We are a gun-toting, gun-culture nation, and that’s going to make things a little bit challenging.”
The U.S. stands out among industrialized nations, Kaplan said. Gun homicides in the U.S. are 25 times higher than the average of other high-income countries. Factors such as poverty and inequality are contributing factors, he said.
“You all hear about poverty, but inequality is another measure of economic well-being. And there is a strong correlation between homicide per million and income inequality,” said Kaplan, pointing out that countries that are most equal have the lowest rates of gun-related homicides.
In terms of race and ethnicity, Kaplan said that 77 percent of white gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, while less than 1 in 5 (19 percent) is a homicide. The figures are nearly opposite for African Americans, for which only 14 percent are suicides.
African American males in the 20-29 age group have the highest risk (89 per 100,000) in terms of the firearm homicide rate, a figure that is comparable with Honduras (90.4 murders per 100,000 people).
“In many ways we look like what some developing or Third World countries are experiencing,” Kaplan said.
Citing recent scholarship published by the Brookings Institution, he said that people who witness gun violence are also at increased risk for a variety mental health issues that can manifest as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, poor academic performance, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, delinquency and violent behavior – a “constellation of interconnected pathologies.”
Cities such as Los Angeles and New York have been stereotyped as “dangerous big cities,” Kaplan said, but both have benefitted from gun control measures. “Look how well we do in Los Angeles. New York is another place where the homicide rate has declined quite dramatically in the past 10-15, maybe 20, years.”
In contrast, Philadelphia today still has a high homicide rate, he said. And Texas, which has some of the least restrictive gun law on the books (with both Dallas and Houston appearing close to the bottom), has among the highest rates of gun deaths in the United States.
Kaplan, who was born in Chicago, spoke about that city’s spike in murders in the past few years – nearly 300 shootings this January. One of Kaplan’s slides showed a recent tweet by President Trump about gun homicides in Chicago.
“We don’t know what [Trump] is going to do, but he is reacting to something legitimate” that is not occurring randomly, Kaplan said in reference to the accuracy of the numbers.
“You can approach this problem as a criminal justice problem … or approach it as a public health or social welfare or social justice problem, and that’s was missing in the discussion,” Kaplan said. Social inequality and income inequality are to some extent fueling the gun violence epidemic in Chicago, he noted.
Over the long term, however, little has really changed in Chicago, which has concentrated areas of poverty and racial segregation. Some areas are 90 percent African American. “Neighborhoods still look the same way as they did 10, 15, 20, maybe even 30, years ago. Chicago is a very divided city socio-economically,” Kaplan said.
The addition of guns increases violence. “The more guns, the more lethal the assault. When guns are absent, people are more likely to survive an assault,” said Kaplan. “If we could just tamp down the levels of gun ownership, that might – might – be the first step in trying to reduce the rate of gun violence.”
Compared to other leading causes of death in the U.S., the national investment in trying to understand and prevent gun deaths “pales by comparison” to what is spent on other causes of death and other major health problems, he said. A prohibition in the United States related to research on firearms doesn’t help.
“There is so much we need to know,” Kaplan said. “That’s what depresses me and keep me up at night.”