Reimagining School Safety

Reimagining School Safety

Reimagining School Safety Episode Image with Photo of Sonali Rajan

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“The goal is to really change and shape in a very positive way the environment in which children live and go to school and learn and play, so I feel like that is where the change will happen.”


Sonali Rajan

How does growing up under the threat of gun violence in schools impact young people–not just the ones who directly experience it, but all young people? And what can we do?

Sonali Rajan studies gun violence and responses to it in an educational context, and she believes the persistence of gun violence is a solvable problem. In looking at how this affects children (4:53), Rajan and other researchers are looking more closely at how the impact of gun violence and its related harms are understood and defined. She shares that this issue affects some communities disproportionately (9:38); for example Black children are almost four and a half times more likely to be exposed to gun violence than white children.

We asked Dr. Rajan how she processes both the news, and the emotional content of this subject both as a parent and as a researcher (11:49), and she shares her personal practices, the pockets of success that fuel her sense of possibility, and what gives her hope. The politics around this issue tends to center around what Rajan calls “school hardening measures” (14:43) but she calls our attention to the way investing in communities and practicing restorative justice in our schools both reduce gun violence, as well as benefiting communities and children in numerous other ways. 

Professor Rajan gives us an uplifting example in our collective response to drunk driving prevention (17:40). We ask what actions, investments or interventions she would like to see (21:52) and hear a layered response and broad vision that research shows would both improve our communities AND reduce gun violence.

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This series is created, hosted and produced by Joe Riina-Ferrie and Jen Lee, with audio production and original music by Billy Collins. "How's School?" is a production of The Digital Futures Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

The views expressed in this episode are solely those of the speaker to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, staff or Trustees either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.


Meet our guest

Watercolor picture of Sonali Rajan

Sonali Rajan

Dr. Rajan is an Associate Professor of Health Education in the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. She also holds a secondary faculty appointment in the Department of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health. She is a school violence prevention researcher, studying gun violence, school safety, and adverse childhood experiences. Her work prioritizes the needs for schools and communities to collectively attend to the well-being of children while keeping them safe, reducing their exposure to violence, and ensuring opportunities for them to thrive.

Episode Transcript

Jen Lee: Hey, everyone. Welcome to"How's School?" We’re your hosts. I'm Jen Lee.


Joe Riina-Ferrie: And I'm Joe Riina-Ferrie.


Jen: In this series, we're trying to look at issues that feel especially overwhelming or maddening to us, because we know they're important and we see them impacting young people in our community and our lives. We're looking for a way to not lose heart or to find a path forward or experience some kind of exhale. And this week, we're going to sit with the difficult topic of gun violence.


Joe: Today, our guest is Sonali Rajan. Sonali studies gun violence and responses to it and educational contexts in terms of adverse childhood experiences or sometimes called ACES for short. Thanks for being with us today, Sonali.


Sonali Rajan: Thanks for having me, guys. Great to be here.


Joe: Sonali and I have worked together in the past with colleagues on a whole podcast series about gun violence research called (Re)search for Solutions. And we totally encourage you to check that out and learn more about a bunch of different aspects of this issue. Today, we want to take the perspective of parents and educators living with this issue day to day and trying to support young people in schools.


Jen: That's right. We've all heard the horrible stories about high profile school shootings. And we know many young people in this country grow up facing gun violence that never even makes the national news. Somali, can you tell us about the other ways beyond being involved personally in a school shooting that the threat of gun violence impacts our young people?


Sonali Rajan: You know, I think a lot about this issue, of course, as a researcher, but I'm also a mom to a seven-year-old. So it's very hard for me sometimes to untangle or separate the two. But I think even if I weren't a parent, I would still, the impact of gun violence in the way it is shaping this generation of children would undoubtedly sit with me as a person who had the privilege of growing up and going to school and never having to think about gun violence in school. I grew up in upstate New York. I went to a just regular public school and I never had to do a lockdown drill or an active shooter drill. In fact, I was in high school when Columbine happened, and I think about that a lot because I remember that day so vividly most notably because it felt so shocking at the time. This was in the late nineties. So I'm, you know, I'm dating myself here, but I remember that because it felt like when that happened, it was so awful in that the only possible response could have been and should have been at the time to do everything possible and within our power to not allow something like that to happen again. And now when I sit here, you know, 22 years later, it's very difficult to wrap our head around the fact that there have now been hundreds of shootings, of all sorts of different magnitudes, and I'll talk about that in a little bit, but it's hard to reconcile the fact that we live in a world in which the presence of gun violence in school and also out of school has effectively become quite normalized to the to the degree that we organize our lives around it.


It's interesting we're doing this recording today. I just this morning my husband and I just got an email from our little one's school, you know, describing the lockdown drill process that my second grader is going to go through now four times a year because this is now mandated by our state. And, so when I say that we are organizing our lives around it, we are, we're being forced to because collectively we haven't done very much in various ways, legislatively and otherwise, to meaningfully curb this issue. And this is a solvable problem. I say that every time I have the chance to talk about this issue, because there is so much we know about how to address the persistence of gun violence in and around our various communities. So to bring this back then to the question you asked of how does this affect children? Well, yes, of course, as you said, kids who are directly involved with the school shooting, they are shot or killed with a bullet, yes, they are directly impacted in ways that are just unfathomable physically and otherwise, and their families and their classmates and their teachers. But some of the work that I have done, along with my colleagues, has really argued for a broader encapsulation of what the definition of gun violence is. So in the way we tend to quantify it, we tend to think about it as, okay, how many people were shot or killed this year? And that makes sense, right? That something very specific we can measure and it makes sense from a public health perspective or from a medical perspective.


But if we step back and consider how children grow and their development and how their brains are shaped and, you know, it makes sense to also consider all these other ways in which gun violence may impact them. But it also includes children who may witness gunfire, who may hear gunshots, who have a friend or a family member who's been lost to gun violence. If they or one of their good friends is regularly carrying a gun, usually that's an indicator that they feel unsafe. So some of the work we have done in this space is really thinking about all of these experiences with firearms and what are the related harms that are associated with that, and what does it mean to grow up as a child with gun violence so prevalent in our schools and in our communities? And at a time when there is about 400 million guns in circulation in the United States, so for our listeners, that's more firearms than there are people in the United States if we're trying to contextualize this.


Jen: Well, it's just interesting to hear you talk about the different types of experiences that are both under the umbrella of this topic, but also adjacent to it. And it makes me think about just some of the experience my own kids have had over the years, like having a classmate who told them, I'm going to bring a gun to school and kill everyone, and having to move through that experience. Or being in school and getting alerts on their phones about a shooting happening elsewhere in the country while they are themselves in school. And even living, you know, we lived abroad for a short time and then came back. So also watching them have the threat of gun violence removed and kind of lifted and getting to feel what that felt like and then having to return to a culture where that's so pervasive. You know, it just makes me think about how, you know, all of those things must kind of snowball over time. You know, that they're not necessarily just one off things, that they're kind of like from the time we start school all the way until we finish. And even as adults, you know, in public spaces, we're still kind of reckoning with this threat.


Sonali Rajan: That's so fascinating. I knew you had lived abroad at one point, but I'm just now thinking about how, what what that experience must have been like for your kids and in the context of this issue. The prevalence of gun violence, again, in schools and out of schools, has only increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, we're seeing, one of my colleagues refer to this as a syndemic. We're seeing the coming together of multiple public health crises, COVID and racism and gun violence, among others. And so I think of this as just these enormous burdens we have placed on children. And some of the recent research that I have done in collaboration with some of my colleagues has also highlighted that, it is, that these experiences with gun violence also disproportionately impact specific communities. So Black children, for example, are four and a half times more likely to be exposed to gun violence in their neighborhoods than white children. That's a phenomenal, like a staggering difference if we really think about, it's not just that these we have kids who are exposed to gun violence, but who's been exposed and how frequently. And the understanding that there are many children in this country who are exposed to gun violence more than once. My hope with all of this work is to fix this problem, to really advocate for evidence-informed solutions that we know work. And can really meaningfully reduce the prevalence of this kind of violence so that we don't, we don't have to devote podcast episodes to talking about it, and we can actually when we ask our kids how was school right, we can ask them: tell me about art class. Right. I don't want to hear about your active shooter drill. I want to hear what you did in art today. And I think that's where, like, when we talk about what is education, what is what is the role of school, we've lost the thread.


[music interlude]


Jen: One thing I noticed in something you said earlier was my response when you say this is a solvable problem, because I feel like so much of what I see when we're seeing the latest news story and feeling distress is this almost kind of like collective gesture of like hands thrown up, like we don't even know, or like this is just too big, or something like that is almost an initial kind of, it feels like a collective emotional response. I'm also excited to hear and get to that part, but before that, even, I just wonder if you would share with us a little bit about your responses, like how do you process both your research and the news as a, as a parent and as someone who's studying in this space?


Sonali Rajan: If you ask my husband or if people ask my husband, what does Sonali do, or what does she study? And he, he always sort of says, well, think about, you know, the saddest possible things; trauma and kids and guns and school. But he'll always say, he's like, she's remarkably positive for someone who does this kind of work day in and day out. And I would argue that many of my colleagues are also remarkably positive, optimistic individuals. And that actually is part of the joy I get from this work, is working with colleagues who are that way and who consider the, and who are devoted to really solving this issue and believe in the possibility of this issue, of this crisis no longer being a crisis in our lifetime. That is, you know, always the goal. You know, I go running a lot and I have a great therapist. And those are, those are the realities. I think what also helps me quite a bit is the fact that there are, in some ways you see pockets of success. And in, you read research studies or you see changes to neighborhoods and certain schools and communities through these, you know, efforts here and there. And you start to see, oh, I see the possibility there, right I see what happens when we do this correctly. I see that, that change that can happen.


I think the thing that gives me hope is that the solution to gun violence doesn't rest solely on certain pieces of political legislation and the potential generosity and empathy and care and compassion of our elected leaders. Although it would be nice if that was something we could rely on, but obviously we can't and that is, disappointing doesn't even begin to cover it. There are other things we can do in our schools and in our communities that contribute to real reductions in gun violence, while also improving the conditions and the well-being of the schools and communities in which this violence occurs.


Joe: The politics around this tends to center on what I know from our past work you call school hardening measures. And really, this is like, like all these complex social issues. It's tied in to so many other things. And what you seem to be urging us to do is to focus on caring for young people and providing support for them throughout their lives and that will be connected to- it might not sound like this is a direct response to school shootings, but it is connected, right?


Jen: Well it's, yeah. And it's so funny when you say that, Joe, because I am just like imagining the politician, because it's, like the politician who wants to look like they're having a strong response to gun violence, doesn't want to, like, go to the public event and say, we built a park. Right? But that might actually be a great thing to do. But it doesn't have the like pizzazz of like, we're meeting something that feels like aggressive with something that feels equally aggressive, or something.


Sonali Rajan: That's, yeah. That, like right there, what you just said resonates so much because I think there is a sense of, this is what the public or parents or whatever feel like. This is what I think they think we should do. When in fact and if you listen to season one, episode one of season one of our (Re)search for Solutions podcast, we do talk with my colleague Charlie Branas and his colleagues who have studied the impact of green space in urban spaces on reductions in gun violence, and not just the benefits you saw, you see in terms of reducing gun violence, but also the added benefits. The improved mental well-being, social cohesion, all of that that comes from really investing in communities in this way that is then saying, yeah, it's like there's so much added benefit.


Like this is where, like if schools were really centers of care and compassion where we did employ restorative justice practices, let's say, in lieu of more punitive disciplinary practices, you would start to see, I bet, we would also see improvements in kids mental health and well-being. I bet you would see fewer disruptions in class, right? I bet you would see more social cohesion among peers. I think the, I think the nice thing is that if we actually started to improve and invest in gun violence prevention in a way that contended with these, the sort of broader range of prevention that I'm thinking about, we would see all these other added benefits that would pay off in so many ways. So, I know I've talked about this with Joe before, but I think a lot about how this country tackled drinking and driving and road safety. Right. So-


Jen: I'm very excited for this example.


Sonali Rajan: So I'll give the- I think this is a beautiful public health example. So in order to, first of all, cars now are designed, in fact, they sell themselves based on their safety features. They, we have seatbelt laws. We have drinking and driving laws. We have we have police who work with the public to ensure that, yeah, if you're going too fast, you're going to get a ticket. There's going to be a cost for breaking the law. We have speed limits. We have public awareness campaigns, right. About drinking and driving. And in fact, it's the idea of a designated driver is very normal. When I was in college, that was something that we talked about. Who's the designated driver tonight? That was, these are normal conversations. It's something that is part and parcel of our understanding of motor vehicle safety.


Jen: But you're right, in order for that to be a common thing in your friend group, it must have been layered in the public messaging enough to get to that point, right?


Sonali Rajan: Exactly. And I think, and this wasn't true, I would say, this certainly wasn't true in my parents generation, right. But for my generation growing up and, you know, this idea of saying, yeah, we have multiple ways of considering, we understand that people have to drive. We understand that, you know, it is a potentially dangerous thing that people do get injured and killed through traffic accidents. And we want to do everything we can as a society to reduce that number. We're not taking the cars away. We are not saying, we're not really doing anything, actually to reduce access to the cars, in and of themselves, although we do have driver's license, right. And we do require training in that regard and we do have age limits. So there are we, we have a really nice example. And by the way, the use of all of these strategies, there's some really wonderful work that's been done by other public health and emergency prevention researchers that has shown how the use of these strategies together has resulted over the past three decades in dramatic decreases in traffic deaths, right. Which is a remarkable public health success.


Now, some argue, yes, but cars are not in the Second Amendment. And we have there's a little bit, there's a legality around this. And I'm not a Second Amendment scholar, but I would say other scholars have argued that most reasonable restrictions around gun, around firearms and most pieces of legislation, for example, banning assault weapons or background checks or raising the minimum age to twenty-one, I mean, if you can't buy a beer, you probably shouldn't be able to buy a gun. I don't think that's a, I don't think that's a huge stretch. I think there's enough legal scholars who have argued that these types of regulations aren't actually infringing on one's right to own a firearm and even use it in certain instances. Rather, it's ensuring and allowing our community to coexist safely with the 400 million firearms that are in circulation in the US.


Joe: So yeah, you're mentioning, you're promising us solutions and I heard you mention a few. You mentioned raising the age limit potentially for buying guns. And you mentioned some things that we can do to make access to firearms, just some checks and balances like we do, like with access to driving a car, for example. Right. And you also mentioned background checks and of course, doing more investment overall and caring for young people. What are some of the other things, what would the sort of, Sonali's gun violence version of doing what we do with with vehicles and drunk driving and road safety, what are some of the things that you would like to see happen sooner than later?


Sonali Rajan: So, great question. So here's what I would say. I think we want to think about this as kind of a layered approach. So we want to see policies. We want to see investments in our communities, investments and or certain changes in our schools, and also maybe some attention given to individual students on an as needed basis. But I do want to emphasize that the goal is to really change and shape in a very positive way the environments in which children live and go to school and learn and play. So I feel like that is where the change will happen. So on the policy level, yes, we want to see bans on assault weapons and large capacity magazines, permit to purchase laws, raising the age to twenty-one, which would have a specific effect on school shootings, since most school shooting perpetrators are under the age of twenty-one. So that's an example of a policy that would likely be very effective. So those kinds of policies.


Also investments in safe storage programs. So this, there's a lot of really wonderful work that has talked about helping families and encouraging them to store their firearms safely and securely, meaning locked and unloaded and storing the ammunition separately from the firearms. Those kinds of policies and practices can do wonders. And that's where I hope, I have faith in our elected leaders to pursue that kind of policy shift, because those are things we know work. And the science is very, very clear on that. But again, you noted I didn't rely on there's no one specific policy there. Right. It's the combination of policies here that I think are really important. 


I think that coupled with meaningful investments at the community level. So this is not research I have done. This is a research that my colleagues and and others have done. But it's really remarkable, investing in green spaces, access to affordable housing, investments in early childhood education services. Better street lighting. These are things that, even investments in public libraries, there's a little bit of work that has talked about this. This is really, because if you sort of step back and say, well, what are these investments doing? Well, it's really saying, we value and care about our communities. All communities. And all communities should have access to green space. Children should be able to live in stable, safe, secure housing. We should be able to walk with, on well-lit streets. Right. These are some, might feel very obvious, but there is research that has shown how these types of place-based interventions, and again, this isn't my work, but the work of my colleagues, these place-based interventions are remarkably effective at contributing to reductions in gun violence.


So these are apolitical solutions that could only improve our communities and reduce the amount of gun violence. And when you start to reduce the amount of gun violence in our communities, that's less gun violence that our children are exposed to. Right? 


Then you couple that with more real changes to our school communities, right? So investing in universal violence prevention programs in schools that promote pro-social behaviors, utilizing tools like behavioral threat assessment, which is not actually punishing kids for being a quote potential threat or posing a potential threat. Rather, the behavioral threat assessment process says, we are concerned about a member of our school community and we are going to attend to the individual's needs and help figure out what's going on there, right. That behavioral threat assessment, there's lots of really interesting research that has talked about the effectiveness of that at responding to potential threats. Shifting our sort of way of responding to, of discipline, shifting away from these sort of very punitive responses which tend to take the problem and sort of isolate it, instead of attending to what's actually happening. And I think that brings me to a bigger picture problem, which is then schools need these resources. They need real, we need investments in real mental health support, not even because mental illness is, or poor mental health is a cause of gun violence. In fact, most individuals who struggle with mental health are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of. But if you are a child coming to school with histories of trauma, you need support. We all need that kind of support.


I mentioned, you asked earlier how I cope with this work and I mentioned, yeah, I have, I work closely with a therapist. I have for a long time because that is part and parcel of my well-being and being able to do this work. If I need that kind of support, certainly a child who has been exposed to gun violence, in some cases maybe repeatedly, of course needs that kind of investment and support. So I think if we start to think about, and why do we talk about this in the context of schools is because, well, kids are there, right, eight, nine hours every day. And so the parent, the teachers and the school staff are seeing these issues play out. But the burden cannot be placed on teachers and school staff and school leaders to do more than we're already asking them without giving them the resources and support. And that includes paying teachers what they should be paid, and supporting them in and outside of the classroom and understanding, you know, that aspect of our educational system as well. 


So all of these things to me, taken together, I mean, that's when, this is why I say this is a solvable problem. Like if we did this, if we took the billion dollars, I think it was that went towards 100,000 new police officers just this past year in the US and instead put it toward this gun violence prevention plan. I could guarantee that we would see reductions in gun violence, in schools and in our communities, and positive outcomes and all sorts of other things. But doing this requires real forward thinking leadership, and it requires acknowledging that the way in which we have been trying to prevent gun violence for so long doesn't work. And that's, I think, difficult to look in and acknowledge we've been doing this wrong, we've been doing this entirely wrong, and we really need to change how we talk about prevention. It's not just about the lockdown drills, although that is part of the solution, or at least part of the a reasonable response. It involves all of this other stuff, which again is fairly intuitive, if we really sit and think about it. But we haven't gotten there yet. And so hopefully in the, as we communicate about this issue and really try to talk about it in different spaces and with different people and stakeholders and elected officials, you know, we can start to think about, okay, where, what are our values? Right. It circles back to that. What are our values? What is it we want for our children? Shouldn't all children go to school and feel safe and secure and valued? Yeah, I think that is a fundamental human right and I think until we get there, we aren't doing good enough. So that's what gets me out of bed in the morning.


Jen: I'm just, yeah, I'm really grateful for everything that you've shared with us, because hearing you talk through these like very concrete and tangible things from both, like on the policy level, on the community level and on the school level, it helps for me to bring this issue out of the realm of abstraction and the like, hands up in the air feeling of just being like this is too big or too mysterious or, you know,  deadlocked in layers of power higher than where I reside or something. And it just, I, it's starting to connect me to some of that same optimism and hope that that you're feeling, too. How about you, Joe?


Joe: Yeah. I mean, there's so much more to talk about. But, what I love about what you're saying is that it's not all about responding to terrible things in the moment that they happen. Because we know, and part of this is informed by other work that we've done together, is that is often after the terrible thing has happened that those reactive measures come into play, or perhaps they might make a small difference, but they're not stopping a terrible event like a school shooting from happening. And I, I think what you're asking us to do is to look at the big picture of caring for young people and to think about how investing in them and in our communities and in schools is all going to be part of this big picture. It's hard to hold on to something for a long time period. That might be difficult for for politicians and for even, even the public to kind of hold on to, because it's not necessarily something that is like cause and effect. Like as far as something that you could see, one week we did this thing, this one discrete thing, and it changed everything. But I think what you're pointing us to is the approach that we need to take this more holistic approach. So thank you for for offering that.


Sonali Rajan: Thank you for giving me the space to do that.


[music interlude]


Jen: Thanks so much for listening. You can find a link to Sonali's podcast on gun violence, (Re)search for Solutions, as well as a transcript at the episode page linked in the show notes. Follow"How's School?" wherever you podcast and leave a reading and review to support the show. Next season we'll be joined by new guests with more issues that impact young people for people like us who care about them.


Joe: "How's School?" is created, hosted and produced by myself, Joe Riina-Ferrie, and Jen Lee with audio production and original music by Billy Collins. "How's School?" is a production of the Digital Futures Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University. You can follow the Digital Futures Institute on Instagram or Twitter at tcdigitalfuture. We'll see you next season.


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