Globally-renowned expert in bullying and school violence, Professor Ron Avi Astor, shares strategies to stop bullying and school violence before they begin. Ron illuminates years of research conducted with his colleague Rami Benbenishty from their books, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate in Evolving Contexts: Culture, Organization and Time; Mapping and Monitoring Bullying and Violence: Building a Safe School Climate; and Welcoming Practices: Creating Schools That Support Students and Families in Transition.
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[00:00:00] Olivia: Welcome to Schoolutions, where listening will leave you inspired by solutions to issues you or others you know may be struggling with in the public education system today. I am Olivia Wahl and I am humbled to welcome my guest today, a globally renowned expert in the fields of bullying and school violence, Professor Ron Avi Astor.
[00:00:24] Olivia: Professor Ron Avi Astor holds the Marjorie Crump Chair Professorship in Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs with a joint appointment in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. His work examines the role of the physical, social-organizational, and cultural context in schools related to different kinds of bullying and school violence and has been used worldwide.
[00:00:50] Olivia: Ron's studies have included tens of thousands of schools and millions of students, teachers, parents, and administrators. Over the past 20 years, findings from these studies have been published in more than 200 scholarly manuscripts. In addition to Ron's publications, he was also part of the casting crew in the 2019 documentary Bullied.
[00:01:13] Olivia: The film is a work that traces bullying and the effects of bullying, but also the methods and programs that have proven efficacious in reducing bullying in schools. Welcome Professor Ron Avi Astor.
[00:01:27] Ron: Thank you for that very, very, very gracious introduction. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and say, is that me?
[00:01:33] Ron: But I appreciate it. Appreciate it very much. It's been a long time. We've been working on bullying and violence, I think since 1985, so, I guess a proper introduction is worthwhile. I appreciate that. And I appreciate you inviting me to be here too.
[00:01:48] Olivia: Yes. Some the books that we're going to focus on today are primarily Bullying, School Violence, and Climate in Evolving Contexts: Culture, Organization, and Time
[00:02:19] Ron: Yeah, you know, it's, it's interesting. I had a difficult childhood.
[00:02:23] Ron: My father died when I was very, very young. My mother was actually a school teacher and then later a principal of a preschool, a large preschool in Los Angeles. But she had, she really suffered with depression and other kinds of things. So, we had a difficult childhood, my sister and I, growing up. And when I was in second and third grade, sometimes she didn't have it together to make me lunch or breakfast.
[00:02:46] Ron: So, I would be rummaging around the cafeteria looking for food, actually, and the cafeteria worker (I'm almost tearing up telling the story) her name is Mrs. Hillier, saw me and she was amazing. I consider her an educator, even though she was a staff worker.
[00:02:01] Olivia: Absolutely.
[00:03:07] Ron: And she said: I have a job for you. Could you work in the cafeteria? So, I worked from third grade on in the cafeteria washing dishes, getting free breakfast, free lunch. And I felt so proud. I felt so good. And, um, you know, I came to class, everybody thought it was cool because I got to work in the cabin, but I got free breakfast and free lunch.
[00:03:24] Ron: This will be for free lunch and free breakfast. And my mother never signed me up for those things anyways. But what I loved about what she did is she gave me a sense of a job that had status and that had power. I felt like I was earning my own food and I really look forward to going to school actually because it was a fun thing to do, and they had adults there that were caring.
[00:03:47] Ron: It was funny because through her many of the teachers heard that: Oh, there's issues going on at home. Maybe we should, you know, accommodate. Because I still wasn't writing and reading up until third grade really well. I was really behind. And it was really through the cafeteria worker who saw me there and doing that that alerted the whole school that, you know, maybe we should provide some extra supports and help to help him get through.
[00:04:11] Olivia: Wow, that's a magnificent story. And I think it illuminates that schools are a village. It's a community of folks that take notice and care. I was speaking to Cornelius Minor recently about listening and what it means to really see and hear students. And listening is not just the auditory nuance, it's watching and observing and taking in how children are reacting.
[00:04:36] Olivia: So, I'm glad you were seen when you were.
[00:04:38] Ron: Yeah, I actually loved it and to this day, I still like washing the dishes after dinner. My wife and kids are extremely happy I clean it up - doing all that stuff. I feel a real sense of accomplishment, responsibility. I should mention also her coworker, Mrs. Deshaun, the sweetest, nicest, most thoughtful.
[00:04:58] Ron: And I learned a lot of things doing that there, too. Again, in our studies, we often try and include now school staff when we talk about educators.
[00:05:07] Olivia: Yes!
[00:05:07] Ron: Bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, yard aides, people who are generally not seen as part of the educational endeavor, as you just mentioned. And I think they can make a big difference in kids' lives.
[00:05:19] Olivia: I agree. I agree. And so, the issue that I have seen prevalent in schools being a teacher for over 20 years, but also now I travel nationally and work with schools as well, is bullying and school violence. I have two sons. I have a son in fifth grade and a sophomore in high school, and they have feared going to school.
[00:05:41] Olivia: And when I studied the school mapping and monitoring procedure that you highlight, it's so accessible and I want everyone to know about it because there are endless possibilities with how we can really take a step forward that would be positive. So, I was hoping you could share, first of all, patterns over time that you've uncovered by studying school violence and bullying, and then we can pivot the conversation to describing that mapping and monitoring procedure.
[00:06:08] Ron: Sure. You know, we study and we look again. I started out as a practitioner as well. So, my thinking, even though I'm a researcher and I write and do that is really coming from a teaching approach from a school social worker, school psychologist approach. And then I kind of apply research around that.
[00:06:25] Ron: That's not always the case with researchers. They’re first taught methodology and statistics and all those things. I really approached this from a practice. I have a school psychology and school social work credential. I've taught early childhood. I've taught kindergarten, seventh grade. Uh, my wife has been a principal.
[00:06:42] Ron: So again, I'm approaching these through those views of a practitioner, and then what would research say, which is a little bit different. So, you know, in terms of patterns, I just want to add that, that first, this has been around for a long time, as long as schools have existed. This is not a new phenomenon, even though the media is reporting on it, too.
[00:07:02] Ron: So, these patterns have been around for a long time. And likely bullying was worse in the past, although we always think these are the worst of days. We don't have accurate data that was collected 50 years ago and 100 years ago, but from what we could see that was written, things were not the good old days, especially for students of color, especially for girls, especially for different target groups who weren't even acknowledged or teased like LGBTQ kids.
[00:07:30] Ron: We'd go through the whole long list, immigrant kids. So, you know, there's always this talk of like: What's happening to our kids over time? Historically, things were likely much, much, much worse than today. So now I think there's a consciousness again, and the consciousness around bullying really started developing historically in Europe about 45 years ago.
[00:07:53] Ron: In the Scandinavian countries, and a person named Dan Olweus considered kind of the grandfather of creating the issue of, he called it mobbing, but later it was translated into bullying. And then England picked it up, and Australia, and other countries. The United States had some research around bullying, but it didn't really come into fruition seriously until the late 1990s and the early 2000s around the shootings. The shootings is what elevated the whole topic and discussion of bullying over time.
[00:08:26] Ron: So, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley and at USC beforehand, doing my MSW, they were actually teaching stuff using Scandinavian data, pretending that it's the same everywhere in the world. We didn't have U.S. data, and the first U.S. data that was published was after Columbine and JAMA, really, looking at it.
[00:08:46] Ron: These are relatively new concepts in the United States. Europe was way ahead of us. So was Australia. So was New Zealand, all sorts of countries. We adopted that and started developing it really strongly after the shootings, because at least in the media's eye, there was, um, a connection between the shooting events and being bullied and some of the narrative, which is not fully true, by the way, is that these shooters became shooters because they were so bullied.
[00:09:17] Ron: So, let's take care of the bullying and we won't have shooting. And we know that that's not true. There's a lot of kids are bullied who never become shooters.
[00:09:24] Olivia: Right.
[00: 09:24] Ron: Almost every person has had some kind of experience of bullying over time. So, what we've learned is not all the countries are collecting it, and they're not the same.
[00:09:33] Ron: The patterns are slightly different for each country. The gender patterns are completely different.
[00:09:40] Olivia: Yes.
[00:09:40] Ron: And the age patterns are very different. What's common between a lot of the countries is generally most types of very serious, and this is always catching people off guard, happen actually in the younger years.
[00:09:53] Ron: And bullying is a difficult word because it covers so many behaviors. So, we should probably talk about what that means too. I taught preschool and kindergarten for me. I cannot tell you how many emergency room visits I had with biting and sand and broken bones.
[00:10:07] Olivia: Yes!
[00:10:07] Ron: But we don't, we don't attribute that as violence often. Because, you know, kids pick up a pile of sand, throw it in another kid's eye, or they'll bite somebody. If that happens a lot, then we say: Oh, there's something emotional going on with that kid or whatever. But actually, when you look at violence and injury, it's much higher generally across the world with younger kids.
[00:10:26] Ron: That it is with older kids and the trends tend to drop overall as kids go through high school. That's not how we have it ordered in our head because of the media events and the shootings. When you look at more serious kinds of violence, sexual assault or drug abuse or suicidal. Then you see big spikes up in middle school as well around the world, more so in Western countries than some of the other countries around the world.
[00:10:54] Ron: So, there are differences there. And then, you know, the United States is unique when it comes to issues of weapons. And as you know, the debates in the United States about bringing a weapon, threatening other people with a weapon, when I say weapons, people almost always assume guns, but knives are an issue too, and very little research-clubs, other objects.
[00:11:15] Ron: So again, the word bullying is kind of a subjective word. And when you try and objectify it to what is included in the word bullying, it's really everything from looking at you kind of in a jaundiced eye.
[00:11:29] Olivia: Yeah.
[00:11:29] Ron: You know, and it could be racial injustice. It could be sexualized kinds of behaviors. It could be name calling on the Internet all the way over to attempted murder.
[00:11:41] Ron: Right? Covers a whole wide array. There's been debate whether that's a good term or not as well. The word bullying from a scientific view. Because originally Olweus and Peter Smith in England, they used the definition of bullying as to be a bully, you had to be hierarchically stronger than the victim, bigger and stronger, whatever.
[00:12:24] Ron: What if the person was smaller than the other one. What if it was a horrific activity? And in actuality, we see over time, many of the researchers have kind of ignored or dropped the asymmetry of strength in the word bullying and the repeated thing. So, it could happen once and it doesn't have to be somebody who's physically larger or stronger.
[00:12:46] Ron: And it kind of is a, uh, alternative word for victimization.
[00:12:51] Olivia: Okay.
[00:12:51] Ron: Being victimized in school. So again, now those worlds are coming together. But there are some people around the world that are very, very strict with that word and using those components that are still using it. Some, some hardcore bullying researchers are still looking at that.
[00:13:05] Ron: So, you know, victimization is kind of how we see it on school grounds, and it could happen with kids. It could happen with teachers and kids in our definition. It could happen with with parents and community members. Other definitions are not as wide as ours. Ours covers a lot of behaviors as well, too, in terms of the words bullying.
[00:13:27] Olivia: That gives a lot of contextual history that is extremely helpful for listeners to better understand. I've even seen the photographs or memes of: Is it mean? Is it unkind? Or is it bullying? And, and trying to qualify it in that way. I never really thought about the notion of strength. You mentioned your colleague Rami and the work you've done.
[00:13:50] Olivia: I would love for you to speak to the school mapping and monitoring procedure that you've outlined. I said before, it's accessible. It's a step-by-step guide you shared with me before we began the interview around the sister book and how that came to be. And I would love for listeners to hear that. It's inspirational.
[00:14:12] Ron: Well, I mean, the mapping is kind of an interesting thing that came from my experiences of growing up and being a practitioner and saying that I had got my doctorate at Berkeley and I did my postdoc at the Children's Health Council that was part of Stanford, and I didn't think I was going to go into academia until I realized that when people start reading my thing, they're actually reading my thoughts.
[00:14:32] Ron: And that kind of became contagious. People I didn't know would read what I was thinking and be influenced by that when the University of Michigan came along and said: Would you like a position? I figured, you know, I'll go there, probably get fired in three or four years. I didn’t think of myself as an academic. And when I got there, I started a project with some of the local high schools, but high schools in Detroit and Flint and Dearborn.
[00:14:58] Ron: And most of the literature was, again, looking at psychological traits, at skill deficits of kids, very deficit-oriented. But one of the things I kept on asking, having been a practitioner and having been a kid growing up in schools, all of us, is: Why is it happening in the hallways? Why is it happening in the bathroom? What's going on in the, in the yard? What about the routes to and from school?
[00:15:24] Ron: It felt to me that there were some really, really, really specific times and specific spaces where the frequency and the types of behaviors were much worse than in classrooms. Special ed classes, perhaps at a higher rate, but in classrooms, it actually looked way more peaceful the moment there was a teacher.
[00:15:46] Ron: There were a couple of other instances that influenced my thinking when I started those studies in Israel. One of them was I spent a lot of time in schools, having been a practitioner and then a researcher. While I was doing research in one of the schools in Ann Arbor and then later in Detroit, I saw two fights and you know, the common behavior in the hallway of the wall of kids making a circle around the two fighters, a group of kids urging them on some of the people yelling, stop a teacher trying to break through but not able to break through while the kids are hitting each other.
[00:16:21] Ron: And then suddenly in one of the schools, there was this janitor. She was this big, uh, not really strong looking. She said: Move aside everybody! And everybody opened up.
[00:16:30] Olivia: Wow!
[00:16:30] Ron: And they all started spinning around. And she stopped at the two people said: Uh, I said, well, what happened there? And so I interviewed her, and I saw something similar in a Detroit school. And in both instances, these were people. Who knew the families, who knew the kids, who knew the school and there you were in the hallway where the teachers didn't have a lot of authority. But they were able to actually get people to stop what they were doing. And so, it got me thinking that space and time is really important and relationships within those space and time areas are really important.
[00:17:05] Olivia: Yes!
[00:17:05] Ron: And so, I just did a simple thing in going to those schools. It was a side thing. I wasn't thinking seriously, but about the practice and I asked the students, I said: Don't tell me who it is or where it is, but just take a, take a dot. And I had dots on a map of the school, a fire map of the school.
[00:17:23] Ron: I said: Tell me, Where you've seen an event that's happened that struck one, the worst event that you've seen this year and mark it down, then write down on the bottom, like, what happened there in terms of having it happen and how did people respond to it? And then, so I had, I don't know, about 50 students at first, and then later became hundreds.
[00:17:45] Ron: And then I took all what they said in the school and compiled it male, female, by territory, by area. And so they could see it was kind of a cluster map of different events. What happened? What time? What place? And then how the school responded to it. And then I asked him a second question: Are there areas that you don't go to because you feel unsafe?
[00:18:05] Olivia: Yes.
[00:18:05] Ron: And on the maps, they marked out as well, kind of, they marked: I don't go here. I don't go there. So, two things came out really clear is that: The kids were marking the same spaces over and over again. It wasn't just any hallway. It was this hallway at three o'clock. And there were big gender differences between the boys and the girls.
[00:18:22] Ron: Girls were self-restricting and not going different areas. The other thing is, is that these students knew exactly what was happening in these areas. They had great solutions from an empowerment perspective on what we should do. Now, the surprising thing is in those initial studies, again, there were five high schools that we went over later with elementary schools and middle schools.
[00:18:43] Ron: Was we showed that anonymously, of course, to all the teachers and principals. And they said: Of course, everybody knows this stuff. This isn't anything new. We all know it's that hallway. And I would stop and I would say: Well, then what's stopping the school from stopping that?
[00:19:04] Olivia: Yes!
[00:19:04] Ron: And, uh, you know, 9 times out of 10, either the teachers have said: Well, that's not our job. That's not our job. That, that's not what we were doing. We're not hall monitors. We're not supposed to patrol the bathrooms. The coaches are supposed to be outside. We're not supposed to be on the buses. It became on a union and job thing. So I started asking them: Well, where is your job? And they said: In the classroom, teaching math, teaching history, teaching this, that's our area.
[00:19:31] Ron: So, what was surprising in the follow up studies with the map and the initial ones was we started asking: Okay, where is your job? And over and over again, the teachers in high school said: In the four walls of my classroom. So why was it happening in the hallways? We asked series of questions to the kids.
[00:19:51] Ron: What they described to us over again was the people that were patrolling the hallways on the whole, were very similar to what every person in the world would understand when you yell the word: SUB!
[00:20:04] Olivia: Yeah.
[00:20:04] Ron: You know, that rise up and then all the kids know what that means. That means you could change your name. You could change your seats.
[00:20:09] Olivia: Yes.
[00:20:09] Ron: You could play around with the person and the sub has to come in and say: You know, I've talked to your teacher and I have all your parents numbers over here and I know what the assignment is and your teacher is going to get that immediately out. What they're doing is establishing hierarchy and relationship in that time and space so the kids don't feel that this space is unowned by the adult.
[00:20:32] Ron: That exact dynamic is happening in the hallways and in the bathroom. So even though sometimes we have adults walking around the hallways, they don't have the connection with the administration, with the families, with the kids, they don't have the relationships with those kids. That's where the power comes. And the kids would say, they're like subs.
[00:20:53] Ron: They don't know who we are. Same with the bus drivers. Same with the janitors. You know, the places where this was happening, why that woman was able to walk through it. Everybody said she knew everybody.
[00:21:02] Olivia: Yes.
[00:21:12] Ron: She knew all the teachers. She knew the parents. She had power. She owned that space.
[00:21:09] Olivia: Yes.
[00:21:10] Ron: The most powerful teachers we saw. As well, when we did the mapping studies, said: You know, these maps don't matter anywhere I see a kid. If even it's in the supermarket or the park, I'm going to intervene. The kids knew that with those people, just like that woman who walked down and the thing split up. So that time and space became very important.
[00:21:29] Ron: Not so much for the kids side, but for working with the principals and teachers so that we could I took some of these concepts from the rape literature, actually, in terms of reclaiming unowned spaces. That's what we call them unowned spaces and times. We have spaces in our schools that are no one's responsibility, and the people who are put there don't have any hierarchy or connection to the real hierarchy in the schools and the kids figure that out.
[00:21:55] Ron: They're all substitute teachers in their mind or very low-ranking people that don't have any disciplinary. So if you could connect those groups to the power structures, make the kids aware, then that changes things. I'll say one more thing about spaces and times. Some of our schools decided to use electronic means and more police-oriented means.
[00:22:16] Ron: Cameras, metal detectors, other kinds of things. Those were completely ineffective. Unless they have those same people connected to them following the footage.
[00:22:25] Olivia: That's fascinating.
[00:22:26] Ron: The kids would take videotapes of themselves in the fight and ask for the film. They had cameras in Dearborn on every bus. They didn't mean anything unless somebody was following up who had authority.
[00:22:36] Ron: The bus drivers told us that, so did the cafeteria workers. They don't listen to us. We're not part of this. When we could reclaim those territories and use the voices of the kids in terms of how to fix that and then use the voices of the teachers, those places became much more owned and stronger. One of the biggest problems that we haven't solved and that still continues is the difference between boys and girls in terms of spaces.
[00:23:02] Ron: And just like the rape literature, walking outside at night, the girls are already at a very young age, self-restricting themselves from going to places at specific times of day. And not only the girls, the female teachers are doing that.
[00:23:19] Olivia: Yes.
[00:23:19] Ron: With the male teachers, what was happening is that they were not self-restricting in terms of time and place, but they were restricting around intervention. So, in other words, if there were two boys, they might intervene. Anytime there were girls, they would not touch it. They would not go close because of our accusations of sexual assault or sexual harassment they wouldn't want to touch. So, there were very interesting things in specific times and places that we found.
[00:23:45] Ron: And that's how the mapping technique got started. It was a way of kind of not focusing on the individual, but focusing on the organization and context and time and space and getting the faculty and the students and the parents to start talking about those vulnerable places and times. Cause that's a lot easier than talking about bad kids.
[00:24:07] Ron: Or talking about, you know, communities that are deficit or teachers that aren't effective. How do we secure the hallway and reclaim it? How do we get it so kids could go to the bathroom?
[00:24:18] Olivia: Ron, in my son's high school right now. It's a known fact that the bathrooms are off limits. I need to know, what did you do to shift the mindset of the teachers that would say: Not my job, it's outside of the four walls. And these may be individuals that are magnificent teachers that do have relationships yet they are trying to establish boundaries in their mind. How did you connect with them and bring them into the work?
[00:24:47] Ron: Well, I, I tried to use the students’ voices themselves.
[00:24:51] Olivia: Yeah.
[00:24:51] Ron: So in other words, from what the students wrote, and then later when we did focus groups on the students talking about it, you know, that just means that you have 30-40% of the space and time in your school that nobody, it's free for all, and that's unacceptable for many teachers and principals too.
[00:25:08] Ron: They have to go through that process of saying: Well, okay, we hired people, but they're not, you know, you could say they're bad, you know, hall monitors or about how are we going to connect it? How are we going to support them? What are we going to do? And some of the schools, they said: You know, maybe we'll support them by standing in the hallway and saying each kid's first name by name and saying hello.
[00:25:24] Ron: In other words, helping the hallway monitors by learning the kids names, saying hello to the kids by their first name. And some of those schools that did that, there were really big reductions in school fights. I mean, just having the teachers stand.
[00:25:41] Ron: Some of the teachers didn't want it because they felt it was like their prep time was being taken away. But the other ones realized that when they said, you know, Hi Ron, you know, Hi Olivia, Hi da da da da. Just that interaction of knowing and memorizing, helped the hall monitor that they got a message that they needed to know the kids’ names too.
[00:24:19] Olivia: Yeah.
[00:25:19] Ron: And during transition between classes, some of these schools have like 80%, 75% reductions of skirmishes. That saves a lot of time in the class when they come in afterwards.
[00:26:09] Olivia: It does.
[00:26:09] Ron: Now bathrooms have been difficult. I always say that, you know, I, I, I didn't pee at all, all through junior high. I grew tall and it was six foot something and nobody messed with me. So I was able to go to the bathroom again, but, but that boys' bathrooms, I don't know about girls' bathrooms. I know what happens there, but in the boys' bathrooms, I could tell you, I would have fear every time I would go there. And so would my friends, my peers, and now my colleagues, we all talk about it.
[00:26:35] Ron: It's a challenge, I think, for administration to go in there. Because if you have an adult monitoring that, you know, it's hard. You can't put cameras in there.
[00:26:43] Olivia: Right.
[00:26:43] Ron: And kids know it. So, they have to have discussions. They have to talk about it, and they have to actually talk about behavior monitoring norms. It's been difficult. We had some schools with great success in one school, the vice principal, she actually moved her office right near the boys’ bathroom. This was a school in Israel, actually, but she moved it back up quickly after a term because it was so smelly and she couldn't go in there if there was a fight the boys knew it. She wasn't gonna go in.
[00:27:12] Olivia: Got it.
[00:27:12] Ron: So people have had to be creative, but I think the best way has been discussion with kids. Having kids feel that they're not snitching on their friends, they're actually securing territories, making their school safe. And that takes trust and relationships.
[00:27:28] Olivia: Yes.
[00:27:28] Ron: And the schools that have been most effective have done that. So I, I think just the realization that you have a third of your school, a fourth of your school during certain times and places that aren't anyone's responsibility, again, like the rape literature. And you could do whatever you want too there. Uh, we had rapes in our schools, actually in hallways and after school events.
[00:27:47] Ron: So that's just not acceptable. And most teachers and parents and unions understand that. We have to reclaim those spaces. Generally, though, the biggest movement starts when it's at the top. When the principal believes in it very strongly, we've written some articles about the centrality of the principal.
[00:28:04] Ron: In fact, I think the number one intervention across the country should be working with principals to really understand. Most principals don't get any training on school safety issues or understand. But, again, like with the welcoming school, we found that there was about 10 to 20%, depending on the country, of these principals who had their own philosophies that tended to be really similar across cultures, that did incorporate all space and time.
[00:28:32] Ron: Some were using the Koran, some were using the Mishnah, the Talmud, some were using humanistics, some were using democratic American values, but they all said, you know, it doesn't matter when you're a citizen, you gotta take care, using very similar language. And that also incorporated time and space so that you don't get to do bad things on, on the internet because now you're not physically in the school.
[00:28:54] Ron: You can't call your classmates names. We found that was common. And again, that's why we wrote that Welcoming book because the monitoring was just looking like where the problems are, where I fixed it, where, where the deficits were, where things that were unowned and and then trying to get those gaps closed.
[00:29:11] Ron: What we found in the process is that they were actually principals that we're able to work with their staffs to create a mission and a climate that was all-encompassing and unified that included time and space. There the girls and boys in the mapping looked really different. There are all the territories were owned.
[00:29:31] Ron: Kids knew about it. They knew what was going on. There were no substitute teachers. They're going on in the hallways or after school or at events, right? Everything was thought out, And there was full responsibility there. Unions tended to support that, too, because those schools tended to be the best ones.
[00:29:47] Olivia: Yes. Yes. And I love the idea of the sister book being solutions-based mindset of finding places that this is working. We're finding success and then basing other models on that success instead of always working from that problems-based, reactive mindset. Let's be proactive. And I love that that sister book came from that mindset.
[00:30:10] Ron: Yeah, I could follow up with that too. And that's a big problem in the scientific literature and with a lot of the programs that we have out there because they assume deficits in individuals or communities or schools. Our hardcore research in Israel, Chile, the United States, and some very recent studies that we've done through the A.P.A. Task Force shows that there's a large percentage, usually around 15 to 20% of schools.
[00:30:29] Ron: I thought it would be a needle in the haystack. Really? I thought 2% or 5% of these remarkable schools. We even quantified it. We said: Okay, they have to be two standard deviations above the mean. If they're in a difficult neighborhood environment and we found them, there was a lot of them.
[00:30:51] Ron: What's crazy is that the media doesn't cover them. Our textbooks are not built on what they do, uh, our studies are not out there. So there's a plethora of schools that are doing it right. The A.P.A. study we just did on teacher harm, it looks like about 20% of those schools, at least from the reporting from the social worker psychologists, they actually were able to work it out during the pandemic.
[00:31:16] Ron: And actually be able to provide good services for their staff and students. You don't hear about that, right?
[00:31:21] Olivia: No.
[00:31:21] Ron: We don't cover it. And even as researchers, we don't go back to those places and say: How'd you do it? How can we learn from you? And I think there's a certain level of arrogance as well with people who write books, including me, uh, that we know the answers.
[00:31:36] Ron: We have the solutions. Uh, luckily I'm married to a principal who's retired now for 34 years, and my mother was a director of a school for 55 years, and my daughter had been teaching for over a decade in public schools, and I taught. Rami's brother as an award-winning principal. So, we have a respect towards principals in particular, but also teachers.
[00:31:57] Ron: And we could see that they very often have way better ideas and solutions that we've just never documented. Why that becomes important is because if we have a technique or a method, for example, now with programs or positive school climate or anti-bullying programs, we're walking into schools right now because each researcher has their program, right?
[00:32:21] Ron: Many schools are have 10 or 11 of these programs, and some of them have positive alongside with, uh, negative programs, like, like frisking kids or metal detectors or video cameras, and they're doing them together.
[00:32:37] Olivia: Yes!
[00:32:37] Ron: So there's no philosophy or organizing piece. And again, what we see with the educators and principals who do it the best is they kind of worked out the organizational issues. They worked out the philosophical issues and the mission-based issues, and it's not fragmented and piecemealed and siloed. So, we have a lot to learn from those. And, you know, I had to say it up until last year in the reform.
[00:33:04] Ron: One of my former students was a school board member and she said: How come you never include the school board members? How come you never included super? We just never did but there are some pretty amazing school boards and superintendents that we could learn from, and I think we should. I think the next kind of genre of interventions because those are more what I call central there.
[00:33:24] Ron: They incorporate everything. You cannot do 14 programs. You have to pick one or two, and you have to integrate them. And surprisingly, those principles have very similar kinds of philosophies, even though they come from, they kind of reinvented them on their own. We need to learn from those places, those districts that have done it well.
[00:33:43] Olivia: Well, and that's one of the aspects that makes you so special and why I gravitate toward your research specifically is you're very inclusive and you can say there's an arrogance, but there's a humility with the way you approach the work and it's refreshing. I'm, I'm going to move our conversation in a different direction if it's okay with you.
[00:34:05] Ron: Yeah.
[00:34:05] Olivia: I also feel incredibly helpless as a mom when it comes to school shootings and school violence and having, again, two sons. There have been 29 school shootings so far this year, I believe, that have resulted in injuries and deaths just this year, and 121 such incidents since 2018. That's terrifying. And there was an incident last year.
[00:34:32] Olivia: My son got a notification before he even left for school that morning that there was a threat, a gun violence threat. He begged me to not go to school. I had no idea how to handle that. It's his mom. And I thought I'm going to be tough. I'm going to not succumb to that fear. I sent him to school. He was texting me the entire morning.
[00:34:56] Olivia: At 11am, he had finally quelled his anxiety. And then there was an actual shooting in the neighborhood and the school went on an actual lockdown. I can never get that day back.
[00:35:10] Ron: That same day?
[00:35:12] Olivia: That same day. All the schools went into a lockdown. They found that the threat that had happened was not credible. Yet that same day, probably a half hour after I touched base with him, there was a shooting in the area. And again, I can never get that day back, but I ask myself, I ask fellow teachers, you know, where do we go from here? And I know you've done copious amounts of research around school violence when it comes to school shootings.
[00:35:42] Olivia: Two of the articles I've gravitated towards of yours, one Making Schools Safer: Does Arming Teachers Make Sense? That was written in 2018. And then 7 Ways to Prevent School Shootings. That originally was written in February of 2018, and it was updated in December of 2021. Help. Where do we go with this? What, what is your perspective?
[00:36:04] Ron: Well, first I want to say that I'm sorry that you had to go through that. And I don't want any parent to ever have to go through that. Unfortunately, if we look at our polls and through family members and through my own grandchildren, I have three children and two grandchildren.
[00:36:21] Ron: And even though I know this stuff. I, I feel the same way. You know, when they go off to school and you hear of a shooting and I struggle with how we're categorizing it and how we're thinking about it. So, I have the piece that's rational and it looks at the data and then the emotional piece like everybody else in terms of what is going on here?
[00:36:43] Ron: I want to contextualize what you just said for a second. One, what is crazy is that again, in the last 20-25 years, if you look at California, we have had dramatic reductions in violence in schools, including weapon bringing, including weapon use all across the board. We've had successes everywhere except for the school shooting piece.
[00:37:06] Ron: This is across the United with the guns. And when I say school shootings, I'm talking about multiple uh, people being killed, not just a gun going off and not hitting anyone. We didn't even collect that data beforehand. So, we don't even know how many people brought a gun and shot it and injured somebody but didn't kill people.
[00:37:23] Ron: That only started being collected recently. So how do, how do we handle the fact that maybe what we were doing actually, it was working for the bullying things and lowering the numbers. Yet we feel that everything is getting worse and awful, right? More cyberbullying, more name calling and more shootings.
[00:37:40] Ron: And in recent years, I've kind of changed my thinking a little bit about the relationships between the two and what we do in schools for prevention. And I don't know if all my colleagues agree, but this is where my thinking is at right now. And I think the shootings are. different. I think the use of guns is different than the bullying.
[00:37:59] Ron: I think they need to be thought of and treated in very different manners. There is a connection, perhaps, and I could talk about that in a second, between the prevention, between the bullying, between making schools caring and more safer, but there isn't with these mass shootings, in my view, in terms of looking at the whole thing.
[00:38:17] Ron: The mass shootings, I believe, have to be understood. And again, a lot of my work is with Rami and Israel over time that I've spent a great deal of time in Israel and in South America, other places. And I've been able to observe the effects of terror. What happens when somebody comes in with a suicide bomber?
[00:38:37] Ron: One of our schools has a suicide bomber or with the shooting. And what happens to the kids in the population if that hits a school or a neighborhood? And basically the person targets innocent people that aren't connected with them personally at all.
[00:38:51] Olivia: Yeah.
[00:38:55] Ron: And tries to kill as many people as possible. That's the goal. My understanding over time here of our school shootings and other shootings that happen in other settings, supermarkets or, or cinema or streets or parades. Is the goal of many of these shooters is actually we've mischaracterized it. It's not just, you know, the mental health and the obsession guns and all that.
[00:39:15] Ron: It's a form of terror. That's what I've learned from Israel is they're trying to terrorize every parent. And that's why I say you're not the only one, me, you, and with terror, we can't shut that off because the idea of somebody we don't know randomly killing people just to kill people…
[00:39:36] Olivia: …it’s awful…
[00:39:41] Ron: …as many as possible is actually its only purpose is terrorism.
[00:39:41] Olivia: Yeah.
[00:39:41] Ron: That is to instill fear in all the children. And that's not just your targets. It's not a vendetta. It's about now why? So when you look at the terrorism literature, we have a lot to learn from that, because, uh, you know, here we see people who are suicidal, almost all the shooters have been suicidal, and they decide to take out other people, too.
[00:40:04] Ron: Why? Well, you know, they have video cams like today's shooting in Memphis that they live stream it. Or they send out messages or manifestos or video things to media outlets to other people, or they let people know beforehand. And my reading of that is very similar. They want a message out. More importantly is they want memory.
[00:40:26] Ron: They want to be remembered and they want to be known. They don't want to just have died for no reason. So, killing innocent people is a good way to get the media and the society to focus on who you are, even if it's in a really horrible negative way. The reason why I go at length in explaining that is because I'm getting back to your feeling of I don't want to send my kid to school tomorrow.
[00:40:47] Ron: My kid doesn't want to go. This is awful. We're seeing that in the pupils in terms of kids, even though they rate their schools as very safe in their mind, their number one or two concerns is being shot at school.
[00:40:58] Olivia: Yes.
[00:40:58] Ron: That's coming from the terror piece actually, it's not coming from the local part. It's coming from the outside media amplification of what's going on. Similar to what you'd think if you go to Israel or other places. It's the idea that you might be attacked anywhere, any place, any time. And, and that's why I can't turn it off. That's why even though I know the numbers are going down, I know this school is safe, I think, well, maybe somebody random is going to come in and do that.
[00:41:25] Ron: So, what do we then say to parents about that and how we handle it? I think first, the most important thing is to recognize it and understand it, its goal. Its goal is to make you feel exactly the way you feel.
[00:41:37] Olivia: Yeah.
[00:41:37] Ron: It's to make you feel like you can't go outside, like everything is worse, like everything, so that you remember who did it and you remember where it was. So, there is some good research on showing how to handle issues of terror so that you don't get a contagion. You don't get more and more people doing it, so the media and people will cover it. And I think, as a country, we need to start following that. One is to not focus on the perpetrator at all. Some places they don't mention their names, they don't go into their backgrounds.
[00:42:04] Ron: So, their whole reward system of doing it, that would predict a massive reduction in the number of terror events you're gonna have. By the way, the same thing happens with suicide. If you could get the media and the general public just not to focus on them all the time, to talk about the victims. You get a dramatic reduction in the number of frequencies that these happen, and they start becoming less and less.
[00:42:26] Ron: And sometimes they disappear. There are guidelines that exist both for the suicide reporting and for the terrorism reporting that I think if we followed around the issues of school shootings over a period of time, you'd get fewer of them, and we wouldn't feel as bad. The second thing happened is I was just recently in Israel, and we had a conference on school violence.
[00:42:45] Ron: I was on Disney Gulf Avenue in the hotel, and right below us, there was a bar. It was a person who came in and killed a bunch of people. While we were in Israel. We had that happen there. My colleagues from the United States as well. So it wasn't an imagined, it was a real terrorist attack. What I learned from being not just in that one, but in other similar situations is the Israeli public....
[00:43:07] Ron: …and I don't know if we could do this in the United States. I'm not sure. The next day there was a manhunt that evening and the following morning, millions of people were out in the street there. They didn't stay home. They didn't stay away. There were women who were pregnant with babies, old ladies, people. Uh, they had music out there.
[00:43:30] Ron: They were running around. There was a memorial. People came around. There were some religious people praying. All of Tel Aviv was packed with people. And it was kind of like an answer to say... You're not going to get what you want, and I don't know how to explain it, but having been in the U.S. society, I actually went out on the streets and walked around, and after doing that, it was almost like a great PTSD.
[00:43:54] Ron: I actually, the next day, felt better. I still was thinking about it a bit. I could go to the park. I could go to this. I wasn't immobilized. They somehow learned that you cannot give in to that terrorist uh, thing. And again, these school shootings and these community shootings are, in my mind, a hundred percent terrorism.
[00:44:12] Ron: We need to start doing those approaches. I don't know if that's just specific for schools. And I do worry with all the training and all the stuff, whether we're overdoing it so that we create a generation of kids with super anxieties. And then we get these poll results saying that, you know, I think I'm going to be killed.
[00:44:29] Ron: I think I'm going to be shot. The world is coming to an end. Do we want to create a generation like that?
[00:44:34] Olivia: No.
[00:44:34] Ron: And do we want to create a society where every potential child in your school or potential person in your neighborhood is a potential shooter? That's a philosophical decision we have to make.
[00:44:47] Ron: Empirically, the studies from PTSD and what I just described in this would show that normalization, going back and actually resisting that would be a healthier way to go for a society. So, I don't know what to say to you and to myself afterwards is because you can't just turn it off. But long term, it seems to me like that is a potential solution for us.
[00:45:10] Olivia: Yeah. Yeah, and after reading your articles that I have constantly gone back to to quell my anxiety about it in any way, shape or form. This is it's a long-term journey. This is nothing short. There's no magic. Quoting from one of your pieces “Bottom line, research suggests that if we as a nation want to make schools safer, we need the will to commit to the long-term, multifaceted, hard work that such change requires. There are no quick or magic fixes. We need to have a safety policy based on research, and that reflects the type of society we want to create.”
[00:45:50] Ron: Absolutely.
[00:45:50] Olivia: That's it. That's it.
[00:45:52] Ron: Whoever said that, that was really good!
[00:45:56] Olivia: I think maybe it was you. It was indeed.
[00:45:59] Ron: Yeah, I think I think we have, because of the way we see things right now, we have missed opportunities along the line following on that.
[00:46:10] Ron: And that is, you know, even getting back to the shooter, you know, we're always talking about after the shooting. But many of these shootings and shooters, there was kind of rumbling before the earthquake that was happening. So it's not siloing it as just mental health or just guns like that CNN 7 Ways article for people to understand the combination of those things a child is coming to you with obsessions, multiple firearms, buying them and building the arsenals worshipping.
[00:46:44] Ron: I mean, this is not, I hate to say it's not rocket science, worshipping the shooters. Then showing suicidal tendencies and a desire. Writing and putting that up in their school. Telling their schoolmate. So a lot a lot of the shooters have been visible, not all of them. We get into what's not all mental health. Well, it's not all guns that. It's this constellation things if we could see that earlier and with many of the shooters, we probably, our lens were open and our systems were able to be more flexible.
[00:47:14] Ron: We'd be able to provide resources for those kinds of kids in a more comprehensive understanding way. And be really clear that, yeah, you need, you need to tell those parents, remove those guns from the house. No rewarding a kid for good behavior by buying them a gun. You won't believe how many times that's happened.
[00:47:30] Ron: Right? With our shooters or therapists recommending this historically in the Oregon case as a good way for the parents and kids to bond is going shooting together or in the Parkland case where the, you know, guns were, yeah, I could go on and on and on. If we understood with the peers that they weren't tattletailing and we understood with the teachers that it wasn't just a great essay, they wrote in their literature. That these may be calls for help.
[00:47:54] Ron: Then we could organize in the support of a caring way. As long as we have a very punitive approach to each of these and stigmatizing, I think people are going to be reluctant to come forth. We've locked in to tell people about their friends, reluctant to get them in trouble. And parents are going to feel very, uh, polarized.
[00:48:10] Ron: I mean, and that's what I'm scared about right now and looking at the political situation and how we talk about guns. Most of the gun solutions, if you look at school, are very straightforward and very, you know, if we have kids go through driver's ed and they have to pass a license because we know that a car could kill other people.
[00:48:31] Ron: Why in the world wouldn't we have a license and education around gun safety? It's. That we could, we could eliminate thousands and thousands of death and injury just by doing simple education. That's not the second amendment. You're not doing all those things. There's agreement amongst most. So there's missed opportunities as a society in terms of the long-term, even at the extreme ends of gun use and shootings.
[00:48:56] Ron: But if all we're talking about is this shooter after the shooting. And I feel bad for all those places that we never get back to the place. But what about going seven steps earlier, even on the issue of guns, it's just doing straightforward gun education, gun safety, gun control, suicide prevention, locking up, and then a license around it.
[00:49:17] Ron: The research shows that actually that would prevent a lot of deaths. It's like it does with cars. Imagine everybody out there driving never gotten a license because it's in our constitution, you could drive and you could be free wherever you want. We would have a lot more people dying.
[00:49:32] Olivia: Yeah.
[00:49:33] Ron: So I think just using common sense approaches to these, we could get there. So, I'm optimistic. I just think the obstacle is again, are will to do that and our will to not demonize and polarize other people, but really come up with common solutions with the goal of saving lives and not violating people's rights.
[00:49:54] Olivia: Yes. I could speak with you for. a long, long time because you're a wealth of knowledge. And I want to just thank you. Thank you for your brilliance, for your research years and years of research to shed light on solutions that are tangible, that are accessible. And I'm grateful there are folks like you out there in the world that are constantly seeking to make our children's lives better.
[00:50:24] Olivia: And that's what I'm about. So thank you for being a guest.
[00:50:27] Ron: And I want to return that, thank you back to you for your decades of teaching and parenting and for really putting out this podcast on your own as your own brainchild and getting it out to the public. I'm happy to be able to speak with you and to share some knowledge as your other speakers.
[00:50:45] Ron: And I wish you in this endeavor and all your other work to be blessed. And hopefully it will change the world in a positive way. Thank you.
[00:50:52] Olivia: Hopefully that's all we can ask for, isn't it? Thank you so much.
[00:50:57] Ron: Thank you.
[00:51:01] Olivia: Schoolutions is a podcast created, produced, and edited by me, Olivia Wahl. Special thanks to my guest, professor Ron Avi Astor. Thanks to my older son Benjamin, who created the music that's playing in the background. If you like Schoolutions, please share, rate, review, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @schoolutionspodcast. If you want to reach out, leave me a SpeakPipe voice memo at my website: www.oliviawahl.com/podcast or via email @firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't forget to talk about us nicely on social media, and please keep listening. Let's continue finding inspiration together.