This episode of Michigan Minds is part of a special series from University of Michigan Public Engagement & Impact in collaboration with the Office of the Vice President for Research on firearm injury prevention.
School safety not only impacts students and teachers, but entire communities, which is why it’s an important area of emphasis. Justin Heinze, PhD, assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health, researches school-based violence and how institutions can serve as settings for prevention. Heinze joined the Michigan Minds podcast as a part of the Firearm Injury Prevention Research Series to discuss early identification of potential violence, interventions that can be implemented, and ways to address and prevent school-based violence while promoting student learning and development.
Heinze examines health disparities in adolescents and how some of the structural features of school perpetuate inequality and violence. He says that national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Education Statistics says about “four of every five schools experience at least one crime per year, and about 20 percent of schools report a serious violent incident.” He notes that this alone is concerning, and even more so when considering that those are only incidents reported to police, while the rates of bullying, intimidation, and online victimization are harder to capture.
“Although it might seem obvious to most people, we still need to ask ourselves why focusing on safety in schools is important,” he says, adding that along with things like food and shelter, a foundational need of students is feeling physically and emotionally safe. “These are indispensable for promoting learning.”
Having processes in schools for students to reach out to a trusted adult to say they are worried about themselves or a peer is necessary so they can alert the proper authorities, he says.
“Truly random, spontaneous acts of violence are rare, and more often than not someone else knows when violence might happen. So to pull students in and to provide them with an outlet to make some of those reports could be a way to stop violence in the moment or right before it occurs,” Heinze says.
He also discusses active shooter, or lockdown, drills, which have become increasingly common, and says he hasn’t seen much evidence to suggest that they are effective at reducing firearm or other injury. In fact, he says, in some cases they might even be harmful to students if they are conducted in a way that is highly stressful with scare tactics or trying to simulate a realistic response.
Schools do not operate in a vacuum, he says, so it is important to bring more voices to the table to discuss how to approach firearm violence and school safety.
“Unfortunately, schools are not immune to firearm violence, and yet, schools are these bedrock institutions in communities. They are a place where some of our most vulnerable population goes on a consistent basis,” Heinze says.
“I think we need to use a systematic and scientific approach to make sure what we’re testing is done in a way that’s centering the students and their experience, that’s not overly burdensome to schools and their staff, but then also has clear implications. And it’s not just for the sake of better understanding, but that we are working toward interventions and policies that we believe can make schools safer.”