School violence prevention event April 1 examines child safety, research

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Since the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, legislators and policy makers have been searching for ways to prevent school violence. Penn State, in collaboration with several local school districts, will hold a special event April 1 to explore how community advocates and researchers can work together to prevent tragedies in schools.

"Preventing School Violence: From Community Awareness to Evidence-Based Policies and Practices," a free public event, will be held from 7:30 to 9 p.m. on Monday, April 1, in the lobby of the Outreach Building, located at 100 Innovation Park Blvd. in State College. The event will also be streamed live online; those wishing to view the live stream should register at the event’s website -- http://student.worldcampus.psu.edu/community/preventing-school-violence -- after 7 p.m. on April 1. Registration for in-person attendance is required and will be accepted until all seats are filled.

A Q&A session featuring online and in-person questions will follow the panel discussion. Viewers are invited to join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #SchoolSafety and on the live stream page for a moderated online chat. The event will also be archived for public viewing on the World Campus YouTube website at http://www.youtube.com/user/PSUWorldCampus online.

The event is supported by several University and community sponsors, including Penn State World Campus, Penn State Continuing Education, the Social Science Research Institute, the Network on Child Protection and Well-Being, and the Penns Valley, Bald Eagle, Bellefonte, State College and Philipsburg-Osceola Area School Districts.

John-Michael Keyes, whose daughter was killed in a 2006 shooting at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo., will open the event as keynote speaker. Following his talk, Penn State Public Broadcasting’s Patty Satalia will moderate a discussion on violence in schools and the research being done at Penn State to prevent similar tragedies.

The panel will include Karen Bierman, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Penn State, and Brian Bumbarger, director of Penn State’s EPISCenter, both members of Penn State's Network for Child Protection and Well-Being; Rebecca Bywater, manager of threat assessment and community education for Penn State University Police; and Randy K. Rockey, director of emergency management for Centre County.

The panel will discuss programs that guide troubled students away from depression and anxiety caused by isolation, and toward stronger mental health. The programs also strengthen social values and life skills that help a student value his or her community.

Benefits of violence-prevention programs, research

According to Bierman and Bumbarger, reactive measures in the aftermath of school violence can only do so much. At the root of this issue is how to increase preventative efforts and reduce the likelihood of school violence before it happens.

“All the attention goes to locking down schools to make things safer,” said Bumbarger. "There is virtually no discussion on why someone would want to shoot up a school in the first place. And there is no discussion on the social and emotional needs, or mental health of children.”

Bumbarger and Bierman say school violence prevention starts with evidence-based education programs that teach social values and life skills. Programs like PATHS (Providing Alternative THinking Strategies), a curriculum created by Mark Greenberg, professor of human development and psychology, provide resources for educators and counselors to help students develop self-control, emotional awareness and interpersonal problem-solving skills.

"To prevent school violence, we have to address the roots,” Bierman said. “The incidents that catch the public’s eye represent the most extreme forms of violence, but these account for just a tiny fraction of the hostile altercations that happen every day in school settings. Conflicts between students, bullying, victimization and poor teacher-student relationships are more common. These experiences lead to alienation and distrust, they chip away at the mental health of the children involved."

She added that these incidents can be prevented. "We have programs and approaches that can increase school support for all students, and create safer and stronger school communities."

Bumbarger, who before coming to Penn State worked as the manager of the Pennsylvania Center for Safe Schools, said he understands the frustration people have when school shootings occur, but insists that a proactive response based on data is more effective.

“We have a great deal of research showing that we can prevent anxiety and depression…youth-aged drug use and aggression in kids,” he said. “There is little research that locking down schools makes them safer places.”

In other words, there is no evidence that stocking schools with guns and surveillance cameras is the answer. Bumbarger said building an environment of fear and widening the relationship gap between teacher and student has the potential of creating more problems. A “zero tolerance” rule, enacted in Pennsylvania public schools in the mid-1990s, meant any student who brought a weapon to school was automatically expelled. Bumbarger said this policy resulted in a phenomenon called the “school to prison pipeline.”

“We’re taking behavior problems that used to be dealt with through the typical school discipline process, and we’re pulling the kids into the juvenile justice system, and eventually filling our prisons,” he said. “That would be OK if it made us all safer, or reduced crime, but there’s no indication that that’s the case.”

Penn State, as part of its initiative to be at the forefront of national efforts toward prevention and therapy for child maltreatment, formed the University-wide Network for Child Protection and Well-Being in January 2013. The Network's goal is to advance knowledge, practice, education and outreach to combat child abuse by bringing together current and new faculty whose research, teaching and service focus on the well-being and development of children and youth.

"The Network builds on Penn State’s longstanding excellence in research, practice, education and outreach on children, youth and families, bringing our University’s resources to bear on efforts to combat child maltreatment and promote dissemination of knowledge," said Susan McHale, director of Penn State's Social Science Research Institute and the Children, Youth and Families Consortium. For more information about the Network, visit http://www.ssri.psu.edu/thenetwork.

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Last Updated April 24, 2013