The Human Right to Be Safe: TC’s Sonali Rajan on Orlando | Teachers College Columbia University

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The Human Right to Be Safe: TC’s Sonali Rajan on Orlando


The tragedy in Orlando this past weekend is nothing short of unspeakable.  No person—regardless of race, ethnicity, faith, gender, sexual orientation—should ever be afraid to go to school, to see a movie in a theater, to eat in a restaurant, to walk home from the grocery store, to go to a night club. 

The right to be safe is a human right. 

As educators and advocates for the health and well-being specifically of our nation’s youth, many faculty, students, and staff here at Teachers College have and continue to make significant efforts to cultivate safe and healthy school climates.  Indeed, we collectively believe that schools should be safe spaces for learning and growth; havens where youth are nurtured.  However, that expectation for safety extends far beyond our classrooms and to the spaces within our communities.

The mass killings that have become so commonplace in our society are part of a national gun violence epidemic; a public health crisis that exists in no other developed country.  The shooting in Orlando marked the ninth mass shooting in 2016 alone and was the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the US (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2016).  Indeed, 12,000 Americans die from gun violence every year and nearly seven children are killed by guns each day (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2016). Given the lack of comprehensive gun control at the federal level, the widely pervasive background check loopholes, the ubiquity of unlicensed dealers, and the subsequent ease by which it is possible for assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to be purchased, it is clear that common sense gun control measures must be in place if incidents of gun violence of this magnitude are to be prevented. 

However, restricting access to firearms is only one part of the solution to effectively addressing this deeply complex social crisis.  We must also prioritize efforts that help us to both understand and address the pathology contributing to such anger and violence in the first place.  Research has substantiated that exposure to violence of any sort unequivocally hinders the healthy development of children.  Indeed, of the many issues plaguing American youth, aggression and violence remain serious—if not one of the most serious—areas of public health concern.  Rates of gun possession among adolescent youth have not decreased in over a decade; nearly one in five youth report being bullied via electronic means; approximately one in ten Hispanic teens report being recently physically injured by a sexual partner;female youth experience sexual assault at rates twice as high as their male peers;suicide remains one of the leading causes of death among all youth;and recent research has also confirmed that in any given month, 5–7% of high school students report carrying a firearm.  

It is therefore not surprising that as we learn more about this killer, we hear about his own history of aggressive and violent behaviors.  It should be noted that such an acknowledgement of his history in no way justifies his actions.  Rather, this points to the need to reframe how we think about the prevention of mass shootings as a much broader and more systematic effort to prevent all forms of aggression and violence.

Indeed, we can counter these moments of extreme violence by investing in the development of our schoolteachers and supporting the implementation of evidence-based classroom and supplementary education efforts that improve school climate and encourage our youth.  We can cultivate a safe and nurturing school environment, provide opportunities among teachers and staff for self-reflection, and facilitate opportunities for students to utilize experiences with conflict as teachable moments.  We can promote efforts that not only reduce exposure to violence among children and adolescents, but subsequently provide support to youth and their families in the aftermath of such exposure.  We can have a voice, along with other advocates, to promote common sense gun laws—because researchers in this field are clear that increased access to firearms is linked to violence.  Indeed, the data are unequivocal in demonstrating that comprehensive gun control should be an urgent and national legislative priority. 

We must invest in efforts to promote non-violence in our schools and communities.  It is imperative that as educators, we model empathy and kindness for our students.  Our LGTBQ youth cannot and should not grow up afraid that if they go to a club they might be murdered; that their lives will be dismissed because of misplaced fear and hostility.  

The presence of firearms can jeopardize children’s ability to grow, learn, and evolve into positive, productive, and loving members of their communities.  As faculty here at Teachers College, our collective work, research, and advocacy efforts will continue to prioritize the health, well-being, and safety of all communities both domestically and globally by investing in our youth.

The right to be safe is a human right. 

Sonali Rajan (Ed.D. ’10) is Assistant Professor of Health Education. She is the recipient of the 2015 Teachers College’s Strage Junior Faculty Prize for her groundbreaking research on the behavioral associations of gun violence by youth. Read more about Rajan’s research and views in Business Insider.

Published Monday, Jun 13, 2016

Sonali Rajan
Sonali Rajan, Assistant Professor of Health Education