U-M School of Public Health to host national center on school safety, gun violence prevention

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 3:21pm

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Design by Maggie Huang

In an effort to prevent school violence across the country, the University of Michigan School of Public Health plans to host a $6 million national research and training center on school safety and gun violence. The new center’s goal is to provide schools with training and technical assistance to eliminate the threat to student safety. 

The new center will be funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice in hopes of providing a resource for the Bureau’s funded projects, as well as for other schools around the country. This multidisciplinary and multi-institutional center will gather faculty and staff from top schools of public health, criminal justice and education, as well school safety professionals and experts in evidence-based practices, law enforcement, crisis intervention, violence prevention and mental health. 

Contributors to the center include the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, University of Virginia, Michigan State University, National Council of Behavioral Health, Association of School Superintendents and National Association of Elementary School Principals, among others. 

Marc Zimmerman, co-principal investigator at the center and the Marshal H. Becker Collegiate professor of health behavior and health education at the U-M School of Public Health, explained the center will focus its research and training on prevention tactics and notification technology.

“We want to identify best practices around what the crisis intervention teams should be doing, what are the best practices around counseling kids, how quickly you get there, what role does family play, how long do services need to be available,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t really know what they are all yet, by the way. Part of it is we are going to learn. We have experts who are going to help us identify different areas, and we are going to try to see where the evidence is and help get the information out to the schools.” 

When asked how the bureau will cater to unique school characteristics, Zimmerman discussed the complex approach needed to provide schools with a tailored set of guidelines based on their individual situations.

“One of our tasks is to identify what are the best practices,” Zimmerman said. “What we also want to do is help schools identify what are their resources, and what are the needs of their context... Absolutely, (we are) thinking about many factors: the size of school might matter, socioeconomic status might matter, geographical location might matter, the resources available to a school might matter, a public charter might matter. So what we are going to try to do is, in a way where we can be as helpful as possible, identify what their place is like and what best fits them.”

In addition to his work with the center, Zimmerman co-leads the Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens Consortium. Launched in 2017, FACTS is a five-year project devoted to seeking a scientific approach to gun violence prevention with respect to gun ownership rights. Funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as part of the National Institutes of Health,  the interdisciplinary project partners with over 30 researchers, health practitioners and firearm owners, as well as a dozen academic institutions. 

These efforts seek to address the issue of gun violence and threats to safety in American schools. According to U-M researchers, there has been an increase in violence at schools: The number of shootings in K-12 schools increased from 15 to 97 from 2015 to 2019, and up to one in five students reported being in a fight in the last year.

Zimmerman said schools are in a position to implement better practices or more evidence-based strategies to support students who may be experiencing these issues. 

“The idea (of the center) is to create a resource that will help make a difference in making our schools safer for kids so they can learn, instead of worrying about their safety,” Zimmerman said.

As a member of the Warren County Democrats and the policy chair of U-M’s Roosevelt Institute, LSA junior Morgan Showen said he hopes the center will address the legislative inaction on gun violence. 

“Efforts to provide education and training to protect young Americans from further gun violence are always a step in the right direction,” Showen said. “However, just like the science behind the existence of climate change, the evidence is settled on which solutions have the greatest impact on reducing gun deaths.” 

Showen comes from Lebanon, Ohio, and noted his home state has recently received national attention after a mass shooting in Dayton in August

“My hope is that the School of Public Health’s new efforts will not simply be focused on treating the symptoms of gun violence, but will instead help to enable legislators in both Michigan and Ohio to take proven actions towards addressing the root cause of our national gun violence epidemic,” Showen said.

LSA senior Taylor King is a member of U-M Students Demand Action, a student organization dedicated to fighting gun violence. King said research dedicated to gun violence prevention is important, especially following the passage of the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which forbade federal funding for gun violence prevention research.

“I hope to see this initiative take a varied approach to gun violence prevention at schools — considering not only mass shootings, which make up less than 1 percent of all shootings, but also considering gun suicide, daily gun violence and the toll it takes on young people who are impacted — primarily low-income students of color — and the mental and emotional toll of all gun violence on all young people and students,” King said. 

King tied the need to fight gun violence to social justice causes.

“However, I do want to highlight that centers like this should not be the only thing we are doing. While school safety is undeniably important, we also need to be looking into daily gun violence and its disproportionate impact on people of color, the intersection of gun violence and domestic violence, gun suicide, hate crimes and the countless other manifestations of gun violence in our communities,” King said. “There is a tendency for people to only think of mass shootings and school shootings when we talk about gun violence, but the problem is so much bigger than that and school safety campaigns cannot solve all of our problems.