TC’s Sonali Rajan Awarded 2015 Strage Junior Faculty Prize | Health Education

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In the Department of Health & Behavior Studies

TC’s Sonali Rajan Awarded 2015 Strage Junior Faculty Prize

Sonali Rajan (Ed.D. ’10), Assistant Professor of Health Education, has received Teachers College’s Strage Junior Faculty Prize for her groundbreaking research on the behavioral associations of gun violence by youth.

Rajan, who teaches in TC’s Department of Health and Behavior Studies, has received national attention for her paper “Gun Possession among American Youth,” co-authored with Kelly Ruggles, Assistant Professor at NYU Langone Medical Center. The paper appeared in the journal PLOS ONE in 2014.

Gun violence has proven difficult to research, Rajan says, because of lack of funding and because rhetoric from both sides of the gun-control debate has hampered formulating evidence-based research hypotheses about causes and prevention.  As a result, people tend to fall back on conclusions that are unsupported by evidence, such as the oft-cited idea that young people who commit gun violence suffer from poor mental health.

In their PLOS ONE paper, Rajan and Ruggles mined some 5 million data points in a massive federal database of youth risk behaviors and found that among the 5 to 10 percent of American teens who report regularly carrying a firearm, there is a much stronger association with substance use, engagement in physical fighting and exposure to sexual violence than with any poor mental health indicator.  In fact, mentally ill teens are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence. The study also found that screen time (including video game use) had no association with firearm possession, which is striking since video games are often blamed as a major risk factor for pushing to teens to violence.  

Rajan, a specialist in adolescent and school health, is frustrated by political gridlock on gun violence but also believes steps can be taken without waiting for lawmakers.

For example, while schools increasingly budget for security to deal with “active shooter” situations, Rajan argues for preventive measures focused on student behaviors. (Mass school shootings, she notes, have typically been committed by adults, and account for only a fraction of overall school-based violence.) In a forthcoming paper, she and Ruggles delve more deeply into substance use and abuse, prevention of which they believe should be integrated with efforts to address violence. “If we asked a student who is coping by engaging in regular substance use, ‘What else is happening?’, the prevention of firearm-related violence could be a matter of schools and communities responding to student needs by providing additional and more comprehensive support.”   

Rajan also is working on a review paper that will distill what is currently known about violence prevention programs.

“The conversation should be about what teachers can do in conjunction with others – principals, psychologists, guidance counselors, parents, community members – to support these youth in crisis,” she says. “That conversation would do wonders.”

The Strage Junior Faculty Prize was established in 2009 by Teachers College alumna Alberta Strage and her husband, Henry, to recognize junior faculty achievement.

“We deeply appreciate the Strages’ generosity to Teachers College and their generous support for the work of our junior faculty,” said TC President Susan Fuhrman.

Published March 7, 2016, Teachers College, Columbia University Website Homepage

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