RON AVI ASTOR IS AN optimistic man.
For 30 years, first as a social worker and now as a scholar, Astor, a professor of social welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, has focused on helping children grow into ethical and empathic adults.
Astor insists that we know a lot about how schools can encourage children to thrive emotionally and educationally. Indeed, school leaders in Southern California and nationally have applied lessons from research Astor and his colleagues have conducted, including in other countries. Those U.S. schools have reported significant and sustained declines in campus bullying and violence.
Even shooting massacres during recent years — at schools in Sandy Hook, Connecticut; Parkland, Florida; and Uvalde, Texas — have not dimmed Astor’s optimism, but they have caused him to widen his aperture beyond the school gates.
Driven by the shock and anguish that those and other shootings have evoked, policymakers and school officials have concentrated largely on preventing a would-be killer from coming onto campus — or on stopping one already roaming the halls. That focus produces bills to, for instance, harden campuses or arm teachers. But confining the debate to campus measures ignores larger contributors to the problem, and Astor has come to believe that a broader approach to stopping this gun violence is needed.
He advocates for tighter restrictions on gun ownership and use. Astor knows he is treading on a political minefield. But he believes the trauma and gnawing fear these events breed will not lift until schools become communities where every student feels valued and safe.
ASTOR, 61, DIDN’T INITIALLY INTEND to be an academic. After earning an MSW degree at USC, he worked with severely disturbed children at Stanford. “I had great success main- streaming these kids and had some data,” he said, “so I wrote some articles about it.”
The response to his findings buoyed him and led him to UC Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in human development and school psychology. He taught at the University of Michigan and USC, then joined the UCLA faculty in 2019, where he holds a joint appointment in the School of Education and Information Sciences.
Now, with nine books, more than 200 academic articles and numerous international awards for his scholarship, Astor has become one of the most widely quoted researchers on bullying, school violence and, in recent years, mass shootings.
“We’ve lost our way in terms of the purpose of the school,” he said. Many people define it narrowly, as academic learning. But to Astor, that’s “foolish.” He is an evangelist for a view of schools as caring, welcoming places that educate citizens of a democratic nation dedicated to equality and justice. He has done research in Asia, Israel and South America, and found that schools in countries that do more to uplift every student log higher academic scores.
“I cite his work and his colleagues’ work in everything I write,” said Sonali Rajan, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who studies childhood trauma and violence prevention.
Like Astor, Rajan believes that “school is not just a place that is free from gun violence.” Her goal is “to foster greater agency in kids” so school becomes a place where “they can thrive.”
DURING ASTOR’S EARLY YEARS, there was no field of study called “school safety” and no category called “school shootings.” So his research fell under the heading of “the moral development of children.”
His work was innovative. In one study, for example, Astor and his colleagues gave high school students and teachers maps of their school and asked them to tag the most dangerous areas in and around campus. They found that violent events occurred primarily in what they called “unowned spaces,” such as hallways, dining areas and parking lots, and at times when adults were absent. Their research suggested ways to curb violence in part by encouraging school staff to be present in these spaces.
Another of their studies compared violent or menacing behavior among Jewish and Arab boys in Israel with boys in California. It documented how violence can be strongly influenced by culture. They also found that teachers who physically or verbally victimize their students constitute a significant and overlooked form of violence.
Trauma begets trauma. Intense news coverage of school shootings, along with coverage of the pandemic, has amplified anxiety, Astor said, contributing to what the American Academy of Pediatrics last October called a “worsening crisis” in child and adolescent mental health.
Moreover, there is a ripple effect. If someone brings a gun to school and shoots it, “That’s really traumatic,” Astor said. “The fear that causes to all of the kids in school and all of the teachers goes far beyond the people who were hit.”
These concerns led Astor and his colleagues to launch a groundbreaking study in 2010. Parents, teachers and administrators in 145 California public schools worked together to create welcoming communities.
Each school could take its own approach, but the process had to be collaborative. Peer-to-peer tutoring programs in one school, for example, encouraged students to forge bonds by learning math and reading together. An anti-bullying initiative in another school recognized and applauded “kind” behavior, encouraging students to wear purple and black as a reminder that bullying can cause physical and psychological damage.
The results, after eight years, were powerful: Students reported significant and sustained declines in the number of weapons brought onto campus, as well as declines in fighting, belittling behavior and alcohol and drug abuse. Astor said the positive effects continue, though project funding has ended.
The takeaway for Astor is that a healthy community emerges when parents and school leaders work together to address the needs of their individual schools, stay involved over time, and proceed with understanding and acceptance rather than discipline and punishment.
Rajan at Columbia agrees and argues that violence prevention extends beyond the school campus. Cleaned and greened vacant lots, street lighting, access to a public library and affordable housing all specifically reduce gun violence “by disrupting cycles of disenfranchisement,” making every child feel cared for.
She dismisses arguments that these measures would be too expensive, citing a recent report finding that gun violence costs the country $557 billion every year. The study was conducted by Everytown Support Fund, part of Everytown for Gun Safety. Researchers calculated such costs as long-term physical and mental health care, lost earnings and criminal justice costs; they estimated the dollar value of pain, suffering and lost well-being to victims and their families.
ASTOR REGARDS THE 1999 MASSACRE of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado as a “watershed event.” School shootings had occurred before. But Columbine drew “massive, massive, massive international attention,” he said, which has intensified with each new attack at other schools.
RAND economist Rosanna Smart agrees. Although the number of murders and suicides with guns continues to rise, the rate of gun deaths overall is actually down relative to the 1990s, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. “But that’s not the benchmarking that people are doing,” Smart said. The question for many parents is, “Do they feel safer relative to five years ago or 10 years ago, not 30.” She says increased media coverage has created a perception that they are not.
Columbine also set in motion two pernicious cycles.
Shooters now know their acts will draw vast media attention, Astor said. As a result, many of them seek notoriety by trying to top the most recent fatality count, even if they die doing it.
They target innocent victims to terrorize, making people feel as if no one is safe, he said, and many young shooters hope their actions will draw attention to their ideologies or grievances they are nursing.
Each shooting also escalates campus “hardening.” Schools add metal detectors; armed officers and dogs search backpacks; students participate in shooter drills; and some districts now permit teachers to carry firearms. Yet data from multiple studies, Astor and Smart say, do not find evidence that these measures are effective at preventing or stopping a shooter.
Indeed, turning schools into little prisons has unintended negative effects. Astor cites studies from several states finding that Black and Latino/a students perceive these measures as surveillance directed at them, potentially alienating them from school instead of making them feel connected and safer.
Astor uses a neighborhood analogy: “If I want to buy a house and a real estate agent comes to me and says, ‘We got some tanks at the entrance and guys walking around with bazookas, and you’re going to feel super safe there,’ I probably would say, ‘Don’t even take me to this place, because I do not feel safe.’”
A true community, he believes, includes “people in their gardens talking to one another” and caring for each other over years. Those are social bonds and networks that make us feel safe and connected.
“People … [understand] that for real estate, but somehow they don’t … for schools.”
ASTOR ARGUES FOR CREATING neighborhoods around stu- dents, along with educating them about guns and restricting gun usage. “It’s not an either/or. We need to do both.”
This means reaching out to students who are obsessed with guns, who talk about suicide or killing other people, and who may live in homes with multiple firearms. “They almost always talk about it,” he said, “or post about it.”
Astor, like Rajan and a growing number of school violence prevention experts, openly advocates for tighter laws around gun storage, raising the age for gun purchases, and limiting the sale of high-capacity magazines.
“There is wide, wide public agreement on these measures, and they will save many lives,” he said.
Astor also supports a ban on assault weapons, which a majority of Americans also support.
He is not naive about the prospects for these changes happening soon.
But he also is patient.