UI professor a co-author of call for nationwide effort to address shootings
As it did after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, a national violence-prevention research group — including a University of Illinois professor — is calling for a renewed nationwide effort to address mass shootings.
The statement from the Interdisciplinary Group on Preventing School and Community Violence, made up of university researchers from across the country, addresses the need for more mental health services and improved threat assessment, beefs up the 2006 language on gun control and discusses how media violence leads to aggressive behavior.
"This group wanted to make sure we were very explicit this time around, that there has to be a plan at the national level to address mental health access, to address gun control," to address the impact of violent media on certain individuals and to "think really seriously about threat assessment," said University of Illinois educational psychology Professor Dorothy Espelage, one of nine co-authors of the "Connecticut School Shooting Position Statement."
Espelage said the authors began working on it immediately after Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Espelage said a similar furor followed the shooting at Virginia Tech, when 35 people died, but it later subsided.
She said the response this time feels different, in part because of social media exposure, with more than 100 organizations representing 4 million professionals quickly signing on.
She said political leaders of both parties appear to see the need for a balanced policy approach incorporating both gun control and better mental health services, as the organization demands.
Espelage, an expert on bullying and youth aggression, quoted statistics showing 47 percent of families own a gun.
"How many parents actually know that 2 million kids have access to guns in their homes?" she asked.
The position statement said research has demonstrated a "clear connection between local availability of guns and gun-related violent behaviors."
"Although guns are never the simple cause of a violent act, the availability of lethal weapons including assault type weapons to youth and adults with emotional disturbance and antisocial behavior poses a serious public health problem. Our political leaders need to find a reasonable and constitutional way to limit the widespread availability of guns to persons who are unwilling or unable to use them in a responsible, lawful manner," it said.
As for media violence, the group said research shows repeated exposure through television, movies or video games can increase aggressive behavior and emotions in youths. It can displace healthy activities, model inappropriate behaviors, desensitize youths to the harmful effects of violence and lead to "a constellation" of risk-taking behaviors, the group said.
The group said it's too soon to draw conclusions about the Sandy Hook case but cited two key factors in every mass shooting: severe mental illness and an "intense interpersonal conflict that the person could not resolve or tolerate."
Simply intensifying security in schools isn't the answer, it said.
"We cannot and should not turn our schools into fortresses. Effective prevention cannot wait until there is a gunman in a school parking lot."
Profiling or checklists are also ineffective ways to predict trouble, it said, and often lead to innocent people who aren't a threat being falsely accused.
Rather, every school and community should have adequate mental health support and threat assessment teams, "so that people can seek assistance when they recognize that someone is troubled and requires help," it said.
That means community services should be integrated across mental health agencies, law enforcement agencies, schools and other stakeholders.
Schools also need programs to support students' social, emotional, and behavioral needs, it said.
Comprehensive analyses by the Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation and numerous researchers have concluded that the most effective way to prevent many acts of violence targeted at schools is to maintain close communication and trust with students and others in the community, the statement said.
Schools and communities have to work against the stigma against "tattling" on friends or loved ones who threaten violence or show other disturbing behaviors by establishing clear, "user friendly" communication channels, it said.
"(T)heir lives or the lives of their friends might depend on seeking help for troubled individuals before problems escalate," it said.
Just as local neighborhoods are safer when neighbors look out for one another, students need to feel that "they belong at their school and that others care for them."
"Research indicates that those students most at risk for delinquency and violence are often those who are most alienated from the school community," it said.
On the Web:
Here's a link to the statement: http://curry.virginia.edu/articles/sandyhookshooting
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had the wrong year for the Virginia Tech shooting.