An Overlooked Tool to Stop School Shootings

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Sonari GLINTON: Hey, everybody. This episode talks about gun violence, bullying and references suicide contagion. At the end of the show, we’ll give you a couple of resources. That’s in case you or someone you love needs some support. In the US these days, the horrible and the tragic feel inevitable.

Speaker 2: CNN and the Gun Violence Archive define a mass shooting as one that injures or kills four or more people. These are the places where they’ve happened in 2022. Buffalo twice.

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Speaker 2: Milwaukee four times.

Sonari GLINTON: Frequent mass shootings have become a predictable, if horrific, part of American life.

Speaker 3: Detroit. Tuscaloosa.

Sonari GLINTON: Clarkston, Georgia.

Speaker 3: Lexington, Kentucky. Garland, Texas.

Sonari GLINTON: Miami. Five times. Congress appears to be on the verge of discussing new gun reform measures. Is that cause for optimism?

Speaker 3: You know, the future is still in front of us. There are still things we could do to act and save many, many more lives. But all those lives for the last 20 years and what I see right now, I feel a sense of urgency that we need to push even harder to stop this carnage.

Sonari GLINTON: Ron Avi Astor has spent a lifetime studying how the environment in school can lead to or prevent gun violence. He’s a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. In May, just three days after the vault, the shootings, Astor and a group of experts published a call to action with recommendations that were backed by decades of research they say can prevent gun violence. But all the research in the world doesn’t always help Ron cope with the reality.

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Speaker 3: I have that same fear from my grandchildren, too, in terms of them going to school in the morning. So I’m no different than everybody else in the United States, even though I research this and I’m aware of it. I feel extreme sadness for these families and for the kids and the community. And I also feel that this could have been prevented if our society and our country actually took a public health approach and we could have done something about it, and we still can.

Sonari GLINTON: To be clear, recommendations that Astor and his group put forth do include things like banning assault weapons. But Astor urges another approach. Having conversations about real goals like Where are we heading? What do we really want our schools to look like? How do we want to help young folks feel safe?

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Speaker 3: We’ve seen in some of our schools, kids just say, let’s have an open circle session. These are elementary school kids. We’ll talk about how we feel. We want to talk about being afraid and what we could do. And they have a really frank, open discussion with teachers, social workers, others that are around them, not about their psychological well-being only, but what they could do to feel safe in class. Same conversation with parents. Parents are fearful. What? What can we do as parents? If a class or a school discusses that today. Okay. They could start implementing some of those things tomorrow.

Sonari GLINTON: Today on the show after the deadly attack on Rob Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, where the police were helpless to stop it. Some lawmakers are once again saying we should be arming teachers and experts like Ron. Obviously, there are urgently saying that would create more harm. I’m Sonari GLINTON, in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around.

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Sonari GLINTON: Narratives are important. Stories are important. And when we’re having discussions about gun control in the U.S., often the Second Amendment ends the conversation. Right. How do you tell the story of gun control? Leaving aside the Second Amendment?

Speaker 3: Yeah, I actually think that that’s been a big stumbling block because that’s the first thing that we talk about usually. And I think if our first thing that we talk about is how do we save lives and not talk only about the Second Amendment, then we could actually do quite a bit more. So if the first thing that comes out about the Second Amendment and banning the word banning and all that, then my approach is we need education. We need we need gun education. We need gun responsibility. We do have health classes in schools all across the United States. There’s no reason in the world that any gun owner should be against a gun safety course where we talk about how you store guns, the dangers of accidental death, domestic violence, how you avoid those situations. I think the more people become educated at the local and the school level about this, they’re going to make certain decisions going in a certain direction. That’s more public health.

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Speaker 3: And so, you know, I know that people want to ban all guns in the United States would find that kind of sacrilegious. But my sense is that’s a really good place to start because even just storing them in the right place or learning how to use it or getting a license as we can, the research is showing that if we could get to a point where people are licensed like we do with cars, drivers training in schools, hazardous materials, we don’t want kids to be around here or alcohol or other kinds of things that we have age limits. Then we start shifting the conversation towards managing kids and other people when they are around extremely dangerous materials.

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Sonari GLINTON: Is there one solution that you see on the table now or that that you think that can help address what’s going on based on the patterns that you’ve seen?

Speaker 3: There’s no one solution that will solve this. So what researchers have done in the last ten or 15 years has gathered and said, well, what sort of solutions can we have that would close to eliminate it that we’ve seen in the most effective states and countries?

Sonari GLINTON: Can you walk me through some of the other points of this plan that you and researchers came up with?

Speaker 3: Yeah. I mean, so there’s three really big points. One of them are things that we need to do as a society across all schools. And those are really long term, the short term for the kids in the school, but they’re long term with an eye to making our society more welcoming, more caring, less racist. The second one is really taking people, you should say, is it mental health or is it guns? You know, they usually have one thing versus the other. So actually taking that long list of risk factors that we worry about because no one of those will cause a shooter and provide supports for people who are showing one or two or three of them really, really early on, reducing bullying, discrimination, harassment, assault. And the third one is what we spend most of our time in the media talking about. What do we do just before a shooting or killing or a suicide is imminent?

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Sonari GLINTON: Well, one of the things I think is interesting is you lay out this plan is gun control is just one of those solutions. Right. This feels different than the conversation that politicians are having about this problem.

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Speaker 3: Well, I mean, for me, it’s really about trying to imagine, first and foremost what kind of country we want to be. What should we be? Where are we going? Where is our compass? Where is our North Star? And if we want to imagine a society ten or 15 years from now where people actually have civil discussions, get along with each other.

Speaker 3: And the example I usually give people is like a neighborhood. So if I’m with a real estate agent and I want to buy a house someplace and the real estate agent comes to me and says, we got some tanks at the entrance and some guy’s walking around with bazookas and you’re going to feel super safe there. I probably would say, you know, don’t even take me to this place because I do not feel safe. So it’s intuitive. I want the place where people are in their gardens talking to each other. There’s a closed social network. People get to know each other over a period of time. So social bonds and social networks and the caring peace that makes me feel safe and connected and cared for. People get that for real estate, but somehow they don’t get that for schools. The dialogue that we have right now is really about making schools into a little presence.

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Sonari GLINTON: Help me understand some of the shorter term things that have been shown to be effective.

Speaker 3: In one project that we had in San Diego with 145 schools, we actually tried to make schools more welcoming, supportive, caring with better resources, better dialogue. And it was surprising, you know, even four years after not being there and during the intervention, the levels of bullying, victimization, drug use, gang affiliation are all dramatically down 50 to 70% down than they were. So that’s immediate. We could do that right away if we wanted to.

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Sonari GLINTON: Reported incidents of bullying are down now. How do you square that with this dramatic increase in, say, schoolhouse murders? I mean, if what’s the like that seems like a huge tension to me.

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Speaker 3: Yeah. Yeah, I agree with you. And I have to say that I think as a researcher, looking back over 20, 25 years again, that I was wrong in my original thinking about all those efforts positive school climate, culturally affirming settings, those kinds of things that are universal. They do reduce actually severe stuff, including joining gangs, including bringing in weapons and all that.

Speaker 3: I think we need for the shooters a different discussion. I think it’s slightly it’s a related but not exactly the same phenomena. What we see with the shooters, for example, is, yes, if you look at each of these individual risk factors, they played some kind of role, but not every kid that’s bullied will go out and try and murder other. Not every person with a mental health issue will do this. So that’s been the crux of the argument.

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Speaker 3: What we need to start looking for with the shooters and those situations is this constellation of different kinds of attributes. So kids have extreme obsessions with firearms, with the need to almost compulsion to collect them, an obsession with groups that includes prior shooters and conspiracy theories that want to harm other people, and that all these are not either or these are.

Speaker 3: And almost every shooter has been suicidal. And we don’t talk enough about that. They’re suicidal and they take out other people for the primary reason of having the media and the whole world talk about them. That’s the same thing terrorists do. Terrorists do this to get out their message, their idea, and also the idea that their existence matter. So I think if we approach it that way, we have a whole different way of thinking about it, where we could actually reduce day to day violence, as we have been doing in the last 15 to 20 years in massive ways, but also reduce the shootings because we’re missing it, because we’re only looking at one or two of these variables at a time.

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Sonari GLINTON: More with ron Avi Astor about what we can do to prevent gun violence after a quick break.

Sonari GLINTON: After every mass shooting. Like clockwork, public figures rush to provide solutions.

Speaker 3: Senator Ted Cruz represents Texas. What are we going to do about this? This mass murderer came in through an unlocked door in the back of the school. It’s the exact.

Sonari GLINTON: Same idea as a practical others bazaar.

Speaker 3: And one of the things that everyone agreed is don’t have all of these unlocked back doors, have one door into and out of the school. And sometimes because this is a political issue and it involves guns. I think sometimes schools tend to avoid the discussion when in fact we need to increase the amount of discussing in terms of what would make us safest when you come to school. And we could see in the work that I do with how to create schools that are more welcoming, caring and supportive, that even though they can’t control everything that happens in the world, that process of talking and discussing and strategizing for the local is what really helps kids and families come up with great strategies actually to make their schools safer in real time.

Sonari GLINTON: Now, those seem like long term strategies.

Speaker 3: Well, I think those could be long term strategies in terms of where our society goes to reduce the overall number of shooters or shootings. But sometimes we’ve seen with communities, they’ve organized vigils or they’ve organized celebrations or events that are culturally oriented or they focus more communally during these periods of time. And that’s been really, really helpful. And those are short term. Those are not long term. They can make you feel comfortable immediately.

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Sonari GLINTON: You know, if you’ve watched the debate, especially in the last couple of weeks, there’s been talk of more guards with guns. Is there any comfort to be found in, you know, putting more police in schools or having fewer doors, etc.?

Speaker 3: No. That’s my straight answer. And over a period of a month or a year or ten years, it really has detrimental effects. We don’t have any data showing that a security guard or police will actually prevent or stop shootings on a regular basis. In fact, we have a lot of data with that, showing that even though they were there, it didn’t really stop the carnage. With the latest shooting, it’s probably one of the saddest examples. Then, for those who are arguing that teachers have more guns, I’m still baffled with that because if SWAT teams and trained police officers can’t do it, why are they expecting teachers who don’t want to have guns? We could see naturally to be carrying guns to do that work.

Sonari GLINTON: I’m trying to imagine Sister Rosemary, you know, like being trained.

Speaker 3: And there’s no data.

Sonari GLINTON: Whenever people talk about arming school employees, I just imagine my four foot 11 teacher and Adrian Dominican nun packing heat in an elementary school. I’m sure there are many literary teachers who know their way around a gun. But Astor says we know what would happen if my elderly English teacher, Mr. Kiselev Vocus, had one in his Shakespeare class.

Speaker 3: The more guns, the more friendly fire deaths we’re going to have in those situations and the more situations where kids or other people get a hold of those guns. We have data from other sources showing that those unintended consequences are highly likely to happen.

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Sonari GLINTON: You’re talking earlier about sort of the common traits of the people who do this, someone to sort of separate this out. So I can understand, you know, it doesn’t seem like it’s hard from what you say to figure out who is a potential shooter, given what the patterns are. So what do you do then, the follow through?

Speaker 3: Well, I think the way we think about it kind of blinds us to seeing the patterns as they emerge in real life. I think a blinders is this whole conversation on mental health because there is a real wow, I’m depressed, wrong. So. Well, that doesn’t mean you’re a shooter. I think I think if you know what you’re looking for and people don’t always know what they’re looking for. So, again, even in Columbine, parents knew that these kids had massive arsenals. That, by the way, these are not uneducated parents. You look at the shooters, people with master’s degrees and MBAs and whatever. But, you know, sometimes they bought the guns to appease their kids under the recommendation of the psychologists way back then as a way to bond with the kids. So, you know, my sense is if you look at each one of these separately, you get confused.

Speaker 3: So that’s why it’s really important to not just say things like gun banning or mental health. These are kids who are completely obsessed with guns and they’re completely obsessed with collecting arsenals of those guns. And they’re obsessed with the people who have committed the shootings and they want to break their records and they’re suicidal. Any one of those things that you pull out, you’re going to miss what you need to be looking for.

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Speaker 3: I want to add something, if I can, about the media, because if we take the terrorism and we take the suicidal piece that I was just talking about, that they’re all together with the weapons. We do know that the media is reporting on terrorism as suicide makes a difference on the frequency of how many suicides you have as copycats, whereas contagion. Same with terrorism events.

Sonari GLINTON: I think of the incidents of, say, as a local reporter in my early days, you know, we found out about a suicide by train. Right. And those aren’t publicized because they don’t want people doing that. Right. What can folks like me do to change the narrative or do better? I guess?

Speaker 3: I do think that our national strategy should include with the media some discussion on what not to talk about with the perpetrator, same as we do with the suicide surveys that we do with mass terrorism, because that is, in my opinion, fueling the frequency. By the way, again, we don’t talk about these shooters as suicidal, but they’re going in suicidal. And we need to start using that language and focusing on the victims mainly. And that’s important because there’s a lot of lives that could be saved.

Sonari GLINTON: There’s tentative legislation in the Senate around gun control. There’s anything about the proposals that you’ve seen going around in the Congress that heartens you?

Speaker 3: Yeah, you know, I like the House package much better than the Senate package that they passed. Know it’s much more comprehensive. But, you know, I think, again, many of us are at the point where we’ve gotten really nothing over the last two decades. So people seem happy with the compromise that we have. And I’ll take anything like everybody else. We’re okay with that. I’m thinking, how many lives can we save? But it’s somewhat minimalistic, so I’m okay with it. I’m hoping it’s a first step like everybody else is thinking, particularly on. A left that that it is and that maybe we could get more Congress people to be thinking people will vote on those issues. But my happiness is tempered. Let’s put it that way. I’m glad that something is being done, but I know that it’s not going to make a massive difference.

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Sonari GLINTON: Ruth Well, thank you for taking your time to talk to us today. I appreciate it.

Speaker 3: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate your interview and your questions. I would like to urge your listeners to actually vote on this, to make this their number one issue that they’ve got. And I know we got a lot of stuff going on in our country. But if you can make this your number one or number two issue that you vote on, we will have change very quickly in our country.

Sonari GLINTON: Ron, obviously there is a professor of public affairs, social work and education at UCLA. We talked about some serious subjects today.

Sonari GLINTON: If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, there are people who can help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. That’s one 800 273 talk or you can text hello to 741741. That’s the crisis text line. We have a special announcement about an upcoming Slate live event. If you want to get up to date on everything happening with the Supreme Court right now, come to the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York, on Thursday, June 23rd. That’s when my colleagues from Slate will be unpacking all the news, and there will also be a special live slow burn taping. Head to Slate.com slash supreme to get your tickets now.

Sonari GLINTON: That’s the show. What next is produced by Elaina Schwartz, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson with help from Anna Rubanova and Sam Kim. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. I’m Sonari GLINTON. And while it’s been a pleasure to join you, Mary Harris will be back here tomorrow.