Keeping Kids Safe in School: Examining Ways to Reduce Gun Violence in America

Gun violence has never been a more salient issue in America.

Seemingly every day, news of tragic loss of life due to gun violence fills the news and the national conversation, raising cries for action.

Dr. Sonali Rajan, an associate professor of health education at Columbia University, spoke to the JWU community about the effects of gun violence on children, and steps we can take as a society to keep kids safer in school in this year’s College of Health & Wellness Health Equity Lecture Series.

Dr. Sonali Rajan, JWU's 2022 Health Equity Lecture Series Speaker

Dr. Sonali Rajan, JWU's 2022 Health Equity Lecture Series speaker, addresses students, staff and faculty about how gun violence in America adversely affects children.

Rajan explained that exposure to gun violence as a young child can have ripple effects throughout formative years, leading to both short- and long-term negative consequences, both physical and mental.

“This is what happens when we don’t give kids the support they need and deserve,” she said, calling gun violence “a crisis of a scale that warrants meaningful intervention.”

With gun violence now the leading cause of death for children in America, Rajan outlined concrete steps that address the issue proactively, through a public health lens, rather than reactively in the wake of violence. In this way, communities can reduce the likelihood of shootings happening in the first place.

Community and School-Level Interventions 

Communities can reduce children’s exposure to gun violence by taking steps such as creating more green spaces, improving street lighting, providing affordable, equitable access to early childhood education and offering more programs for teens and adolescents.

“This is a uniquely American problem,” Rajan said. “We need to learn how to coexist responsibly with guns in this country.”

Schools administrators can engage in violence prevention programs, and ensure that active shooter and lockdown drills are explained in an age-appropriate way, so children understand and are not afraid to come to school. Rather than relying on strict disciplinary codes and school resource officers, schools can “meet kids where they are,” Rajan said, helping to de-escalate at-risk students to discourage violent acts. Behavioral threat assessments allow school administrators to recognize these threats and offer the student the support they need, rather than criminalizing bad behavior.

“It treats kids as human beings,” Rajan said, add that “there is no evidence that police do anything to increase safety in schools.”

A Growing Problem 

The massive proliferation of guns in America cannot be ignored, Rajan said, a phenomenon that has only increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is a uniquely American problem,” Rajan said. “We need to learn how to coexist responsibly with guns in this country.”

That means taking a common-sense approach to gun ownership, she explained, through steps such as banning large capacity magazines, raising minimum age requirements to 21 years old, instituting so-called “red flag” laws and, most importantly, encouraging safe storage of weapons - unloaded, locked and away from ammunition.

“We collectively have to take the owning of firearms so seriously,” Rajan concluded.

The College of Health & Wellness Health Equity Lecture Series was created to bring in thought-provoking experts working locally and nationally on aspects of health equity to stimulate conversations about how we can work more effectively with communities, partnering organizations, and each other to inform social change in Rhode Island and make JWU a more inclusive environment. 

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