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Safety in Numbers

Dr. Sonali Rajan: Guiding School Safety Strategies with Rigorous Scientific Research

Dr. Sonali Rajan smiling and wearing a yellow shirt

Safety in Numbers

Welcome to Everytown Research & Policy’s Safety in Numbers blog series, where we will invite leading experts in the growing field of injury and safety prevention to present their rigorous research in clear, user-friendly language on a regular basis. Our goal is to share the latest developments, answer important questions, and stimulate evidence-based conversations on gun violence prevention in which all of us can participate. If you have a topic you want to hear more about, please feel free to suggest it at: [email protected].

Sarah Burd-Sharps, Director of Research

Note: The views, opinions, and content expressed in this product do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of Everytown.

A child can’t sleep well, make proper food choices, or feel engaged at school if they don’t feel safe. This was one of Dr. Sonali Rajan’s findings in her research into school health, which studies the connection between a child’s health, well-being, and critical learning outcomes. 

Over the course of her career, Dr. Rajan, an Associate Professor of Health Education in the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has examined a collection of health issues known in the field of school health as “educationally relevant health disparities” (e.g., sleep quality and access to opportunities for physical activity). She quickly realized that a child’s perception of safety—particularly at school—would always shape, and potentially hinder, progress made on these other school health issues.

Dr. Rajan found that many factors—including a child’s previous exposure to violence and the nature of their school environment—collectively influence youth gun violence. But she also knew that criminalizing students and their school spaces is not the answer to reducing violence. She hopes her research contributes to evidence-informed solutions that balance efforts to attend to the well-being of children alongside their right to a safe and thriving school environment.

Learn more about Dr. Rajan in her own words.

As schools reopen, we need rigorous scientific evidence to guide school safety strategies.

Over the past several years and with a group of wonderful and interdisciplinary colleagues at Columbia University, I have been studying gun violence and school safety, which has included research on the implications of arming teachers, responses to mass shootings, and youth exposure to gun violence as an “adverse childhood experience.” Our team also recently put forth a piece that synthesized work in this area. K–12 schools around the country are implementing a wide range of gun violence prevention and school safety strategies. Some of these strategies have clear evidence of their effectiveness, but many do not. 

There are about 100,000 K–12 public schools in the US serving over 51 million students. So it is critically important that we understand what types of school-based strategies are (and are not) effective at deterring gun violence. We also need to know the impact of these tactics on the health and well-being of its students. 

Right now, the majority of K–12 schools around the US are being asked to make decisions about how to keep their classrooms and communities safe from gun violence without clear guidance. As researchers, we have the opportunity to contribute to meaningful solutions. This line of work has also never been more needed. We saw a considerable uptick in gun violence that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. As students return to school buildings, we need rigorous scientific evidence to guide school safety strategies in the context of gun violence prevention.  

True gun violence prevention needs long-term investments coupled with reasonable restrictions on firearms.

Discussions about gun violence prevention, both in schools and elsewhere, tend to frame solutions to this issue by focusing on strategies that allow us to react to gun violence in the moment of a violent act. We also see conversations that focus only on access to firearms. However, effective gun violence prevention requires long-term investments that address the root causes of this type of violence coupled with reasonable restrictions on firearms. 

I recently co-authored a piece that argues we need to change our focus on gun violence in K–12 schools from triage to prevention. We highlight many evidence-informed ways in which the prevention of gun violence in schools could take shape, including: 

  • Investing in social-emotional learning efforts;
  • Engaging school nurses to help educate families around securely storing firearms at home; and
  • Replacing punitive disciplinary strategies with trauma-informed practices.

As children return back to school this fall, many of these prevention strategies can be implemented now to protect our children’s well-being and safety.

Schools play a critical role in cultivating a sense of safety and well-being for students.

My work seeks to understand how a child’s exposure to violence, both in school and outside of school, can shape their health, development, and learning. In conversations with colleagues who are school psychologists, I had learned that the connections between school violence exposure and issues such as suicidality were less understood. Moreover, the specific needs of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) adolescents had a very limited evidence base. 

We therefore conducted this 2021 study using data from the CDC to explore the relationship between exposure to violence at school and suicidality indicators among AAPI high school students. The results underscored the critical role schools play in cultivating safety and student well-being. We also found AAPI youth’s constant exposure to violence in schools to be a deep concern. Efforts to reduce experiences of violence and aggression in schools need to be implemented in a way that more effectively responds to the particular needs of AAPI youth. This could mean cultivating opportunities within schools for AAPI youth to disclose their interactions with other students and integrating existing mental health services with school-wide violence prevention efforts.

School gun violence prevention programs must be evidence-based and take children’s well-being into account.

We need more rigorous research to understand how to effectively and thoughtfully reduce school gun violence. There is – forgive the pun – no silver bullet.  But a comprehensive approach that thinks about school gun violence prevention in a longer-term manner would be a remarkable shift in our way of thinking. Many current strategies (e.g. metal detectors, bulletproof backpacks, and armed teachers) lack evidence as to their effectiveness. These approaches may also condition students to anticipate intentional forms of violence. We have a collective responsibility to do better for our children. I am hopeful that research in this area in the months and years to come will allow us to do that.

Yes, hopeful! While there are gaps in evidence, there are solutions we know work. Conversations about gun violence prevention, even among our elected officials, are becoming more normalized. The field of gun violence prevention consists of some of the kindest and most collaborative researchers I know. They are dedicated to studying these issues and advocating for evidence-informed strategies. All of this is so encouraging and it is why I am certain we can take meaningful steps to reduce gun violence in schools. This is a solvable problem.

About Dr. Rajan

Sonali Rajan is an Associate Professor of Health Education in the Department of Health and Behavior Studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She also holds a secondary faculty appointment in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Dr. Rajan is a school violence prevention researcher, studying gun violence, school safety, and adverse childhood experiences. Among her various projects, Dr. Rajan is currently the Co-PI of an R01 study within the CDC-funded Columbia Center for Injury Science and Prevention evaluating the impact of school violence exposure on student health and learning outcomes. She also currently co-produces Re(Search) for Solutions, a podcast hosted by the Media and Social Change Lab at Teachers College, devoted to amplifying creative and evidence-based solutions to the persistence of gun violence. Dr. Rajan’s work prioritizes the need 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.

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