In March 2018, The International Society for Research on Aggression (ISRA)’s President Mike Potegal appointed a special commission to prepare a report on youth violence. This commission was “charged with the task of producing a public statement on the known risk factors for youth violence, based on the current state of scientific knowledge. If the Commission finds sufficient evidence of harmful effects, then its public statement may include public policy recommendations.”
The resultant report of the ISRA Youth Violence Commission provides strong evidence of factors that are associated with perpetration of violence by youth, and makes recommendations that policy makers can use to address this public health problem.
We sat down with one of the collaborators on the report, psychology professor Paul Boxer, who is an expert on the development and management of aggressive behavior and director of the Center on Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice at Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N), to discuss the findings.
Why and how did this group come together?
“This group was assembled primarily by my colleagues Brad Bushman and Sarah Coyne. Brad is a very prominent social psychologist who chaired President Obama’s committee on gun violence after the Sandy Hook shootings. And, interestingly, we hosted Brad back in October for a talk about his research on the “weapons effect” in aggressive behavior. I have worked with Brad for some time and he is very familiar with my published work on youth violence. I am also a member of the executive council of ISRA and have been an ISRA member and a consulting editor on ISRA’s journal (Aggressive Behavior) since 2002.”
The major point of this is to underscore just how complex youth and gun violence can be, but that in spite of the complexity there are several robust risk factors well-known to scholars and practitioners in the field. The research also makes it clear that steps can be taken to prevent individuals from becoming mass shooters.
Can you summarize the findings in a few brief sentences? Why is it important to know this now?
“I think the major point of this is to underscore just how complex youth and gun violence can be, but that in spite of the complexity there are several robust risk factors well-known to scholars and practitioners in the field. The risk factor research also makes it clear that steps can be taken to prevent individuals from becoming mass shooters specifically, and to help children and adolescents who are having problems with aggressive and violent behavior more generally.
It’s only important to focus in on this now because of Parkland and ongoing debates about gun control policy – but honestly it is always important to keep this sort of work in mind when thinking about how to optimize youth development and prevent youth violence.”
What are the implications of these findings? What action(s) does the commission recommend as effective tools to help prevent another Parkland (or Columbine, or Sandy Hook, etc.)
“Beyond the policy and practice recommendations already listed in the document, I will emphasize that it is critical that schools and communities ensure that they are invested in evidence-based programs that have been scientifically shown to reduce aggression and violence and promote positive development in children and adolescents. School psychologists and counselors should be well trained and well versed in contemporary, best practice risk assessment and risk reduction strategies for individual cases and referrals. It is clear from reports that the Parkland shooter slipped through a lot of cracks in the local system --- communities should strive to conduct reviews of their own policies and procedures and connections to the law enforcement system to ensure that similar mistakes won’t be made.”
What actions do you feel are, at best, ineffective, or possibly even damaging to the goal of preventing another mass shooting?
“I think the fact that preventing mass shootings has become so politicized has really posed a significant challenge to effective practice and policy. We have a lot of good science that can inform the discussion in a relatively apolitical way. The goal is keeping children safe – and there are a lot of ways to do that – and when politics come into play the possibilities become narrowed into either/or solutions when a real solution is going to be holistic and multi-factored.”
Why should the general public listen to your recommendations? What would you say to those who make the claim that gun control advocates are trying to infringe on their 2nd amendment rights?
“Our recommendations are based on a tremendous body of research literature that all of us have personally contributed to as well. A lot of the findings we present have been replicated over and over and are highly robust. We are not coming out with this report as “gun control advocates” per se – we are science advocates representing research findings. What the research in that regard shows is that limiting children’s exposure and access to guns is one piece of a larger puzzle that supports the prevention of youth violence.”
How do you respond to people who say:
We just need mental health reform
“We absolutely need to ensure that children and adolescents have access to the very best prevention programs and treatments that can optimize youth development and promote mental health while reducing the likelihood of violence.”
We just need more discipline/better parenting/more religion
“We know that certain parenting strategies such as harsh physical discipline are associated with elevated risk for violence, so parent education programs could be helpful. I am not aware of studies showing that imposing religious belief or practice on children and adolescents is associated with a reduced risk for violence.”
We need teachers/administration to be able to protect themselves and their kids with a gun
“We know that the mere presence of a weapon can increase aggressiveness, so I would be concerned about the impact of having a gun in classrooms on the learning environment. Also, we know that police and military training is highly specialized and time-consuming and probably not appropriate for those who have dedicated their lives and careers to the teaching profession. We would not force police officers to become teachers, and we probably shouldn’t force teachers to become police officers.”
We just need to “walk up/be kind/be more inclusive” of the loners
“We do need to do this, but it’s part of the larger puzzle. Kindness and inclusion will promote optimal social emotional development, but we need a lot of other things too.”