Following President Biden’s signing of a new bipartisan Safe Communities Act that emphasizes gun injury prevention, school safety and mental health services, experts from the University of Michigan reacted to the intent and provisions of the law.
Justin Heinze and Hsing Fang Hsieh are co-investigators at the National Center for School Safety at the UM School of Public Health. Heinze is an associate professor of health behavior and health education, responsible for the faculty for Public health IDEAS to prevent firearm injuries and part of the UM Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention.
Hsieh is an assistant researcher in the School of Public Health studying adolescent resilience, youth violence, and violent victimization. She is a co-investigator for the National Center for School Safety and is part of the management team of Prevention Research Collaborative
Stephanie Salazar is the Manager of Outreach and Education Programs at UM Eisenberg Family Depression Center. She works with UM faculty and public school district leaders and students on Peer to Peer Depression Awareness Projecta mental health program for middle and high school students.
What is your reaction to the Bipartisan Security Communities Act?
Heinze: In public health, we are trained to think ecologically; the assumption is that you can’t solve a multi-faceted problem like the burden of gunshot wounds concentrated on one level, like individual interventions. Rather, you need action at the individual, interpersonal, community, political and societal levels, and I am delighted to see evidence-based approaches represented in legislation to complement some of the work done on the ground in the communities across the country.
Certainly, as a school safety researcher, I am glad to see the attention to improving building safety and training school staff to respond to student mental health issues. But now is the time to turn our attention to how these strategies are implemented in practice. Each context is different and we will need to be mindful of how to translate these approaches into individual school communities.
Hsieh: It is certainly encouraging to see that much of the bill draws attention to school safety and mental health. We know that our school community desperately needs resources and support to identify and implement evidence-based practices.
Salazar: It is encouraging to know that our leaders are responding to this urgent need. We hope that future federal and state investments can lead to effective, evidence-based mental health programs that increase awareness, early intervention, peer support, suicide risk management and more.
Will the funding attached to this bill fund strategies that have been proven in your research?
Heinze: Even though Extreme Risk Protection Orders were designed with intimate partners in mind, there have been a handful of cases where ERPOs have been filed on behalf of a concern about harm in or to a school. Several colleagues are systematically cataloging how ERPOs are filed, reviewed, and enacted in a number of states, and as this information comes to light, it will be important to understand whether they can serve as a means of protecting students in the event of immediate danger. .
Hsieh: Evidence to support a positive school climate, threat assessment, and youth engagement in improving school safety has accumulated. Our team has also seen preliminary but promising results from using an anonymous reporting system combined with training for students, teachers and school staff to recognize warning signs to help prevent violence in the workplace. ‘school. However, for a multi-faceted problem like school safety and gun violence, a single safety approach is unlikely to be effective in a sustainable way. Considering a holistic approach with multiple strategies ranging from prevention, assessment and response to building safety and trauma-informed practices is very important and more likely to help in the long run .
What research-proven school interventions could be implemented with the new funding?
Heinze: Poor mental health does not cause gun violence, but I think the bill’s focus on mental health is absolutely essential. Teaching students and staff to recognize the warning signs of internalizing behaviors or mental health crises, as well as increasing access to mental health support services for students in need, is both protective for the small minority of students at risk of committing acts of violence and also encouraging for any student who may be struggling with mental health issues. By supporting positive mental well-being, evidence supports both direct and indirect reductions in violence, and any violence involving a firearm is far more likely to be fatal.
Hsieh: I would like to see two things happen, and that’s what many of us as school safety researchers are determined to do. One is the expansion of research that can eventually inform best practices in mental health and other safe school interventions. The other is more research and intervention considering inclusive approaches for minority youth, whether it is race, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation, immigration status, etc. The perceived safety and well-being of all, rather than one part of the student body/school community, is essential for us to move the needle.
The law includes funding for school mental health programs. Why is it necessary?
Salazar: We have been and continue to be faced with an unprecedented mental health crisis for our children. With COVID-19 disrupting routines and social relationships, our students’ ability to learn and grow as they deserve is at stake. Scientific research shows that an emotionally healthy learner is a better learner, leading to better academic and social outcomes. Parents and community members cannot do it alone. We need system-level solutions.
What does UM offer to help schools solve this problem?
Salazar: Through our school-based outreach programs, the UM Depression Center has a long history of supporting teacher training and peer-to-peer programming, and providing school-based initiatives that help ensure students have equitable access to mental health services. For example, our Peer-to-Peer program uses a “peer advocate” method to train high school students in understanding depression and effective methods for reaching out and listening to their peers. The goal is to create a supportive environment that allows students to connect with information and processing resources. Our data suggest that this results in greater awareness and knowledge of depression and a better school climate surrounding mental health issues.