Ron Avi Astor Honored with AERA Distinguished Research Award

GSE&IS and UCLA Luskin School professor of social welfare recognized for statewide study of teen suicide ideation in California high schools.

UCLA Professor of Social Welfare Ron Avi Astor has been honored by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) with its Distinguished Research Award (Division E) for his co-written article, “The role of school-level factors in suicidal ideation in California schools,” as published in The Journal of Pediatrics. The article was co-written with Astor’s colleagues, Rami Benbenishty, professor emeritus at the School of Social Work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Ilan Roziner, professor at the Coller School of Management at Tel Aviv University.

Astor has a joint appointment at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and holds the Marjorie Crump Chair Professorship in Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. His research interests include physical, social-organizational and cultural contexts in schools, related to different kinds of bullying and school violence in the context of ecological influences of family, community, school and culture. Findings from Astor’s studies have been published worldwide in more than 200 scholarly manuscripts.

Professor Astor’s work has won numerous international research awards from AERA, the Society for Social Work Research, the American Psychological Association, the Military Child Educational Coalition and other research organizations. He has an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College. Astor is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, AERA, the National Academy of Education, and the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

Professor Astor’s research has been funded by the Department of Defense Educational Activity, National Institutes of Mental Health, the H.F. Guggenheim Foundation, the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, the Israeli Ministry of Education, a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship, the University of Michigan, the University of Southern California, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, among others. 

Professor Astor is also the author of “Stepping Over: Pesach – A Collection of Poems Over Lifetimes,” a compilation of poems by himself and his son, Dr. Roee Locke Astor, a medical resident at the University of California, San Diego.

Before the global breakout of COVID-19 cancelled travel plans for many, Astor was to spend this spring in Israel as a Fulbright Senior Scholar, conducting research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The study was to focus on the role of the physical, social-organizational and cultural contexts in schools related to different kinds of bullying and violence and how Israel has adopted policies and practices that have reduced victimization levels and become an example for many other countries and states. 

From home in the San Fernando Valley while preparing for a 30+-person virtual Seder on Zoom with family and friends (read Astor’s thoughts on Passover in the midst of the pandemic), Professor Astor spoke to Ampersand on how to address conditions in schools that foster teen suicide conversations and attempts – and that can tragically end young lives. 

Ampersand: What were some of the key findings of your study of adolescent suicide ideation in California high schools?

Ron Avi Astor: We wanted to know to what extent variables with schools mattered when it came to levels of student suicidal ideation. And our big finding is that high schools vary widely on issues of suicidal ideation and what happens in schools matters a great deal.

Rather than just looking at an individual child approach, we looked at the whole school. We looked carefully at what students were doing within the many schools across California in our sample. Just to be sure about our findings, we did the same study twice with two different waves of data.  The first study had 790 high schools across California, and the second study had 860 high schools across California. Over 750,000 students participated in the two surveys administered by the Department of Education (California Healthy Kids Survey).  

The range of suicidal ideation between schools was really wide. There were some schools that had four percent of the students reporting ideation while others had 67 percent of kids reporting suicidal ideation. Rather than looking only at individuals, our school-level approach looked at school communities or locations that had very high suicidal ideations and other behaviors. This way from a public health perspective, the proper resources and supports could be offered at those schools with the highest needs. We were also concerned with schools that had access to weapons since the combination of access to lethal weapons and suicidal ideation increases the overall school risk quite a bit.

What we have found over the years is that a large percentage – approximately one in five California high school students – have considered suicide seriously. That’s really frightening. We suspect that students in schools with a high proportion of peers with suicidal ideation are likely accentuating these thoughts among themselves.

If you have that many kids talking about it, discussing with each other and sharing ideas of suicide, the approach should include the entire school staff and peer group to reduce extremely high rates. The peer group may be supporting these kinds of thoughts. How the school responds to this and how much support that is given to schools with such a high number of suicidal students could make a big difference. 

&: What did these schools have in common?

Astor: It was interesting because the survey covered almost all counties in California, so it was very representative of the state. There were some interesting patterns in this and some other studies we’ve done by others as well. Normally, there are vulnerable adolescent groups that the general public focuses on when when they discuss suicide – LGBT kids, for example, or foster kids, or kids who are homeless, have been discussed in the research literatures and general public discourse.  

Girls tend to have higher attempt rates, but boys will complete suicides more often. In our many studies over the years, we’ve seen gang members very high on the list of suicidal ideation vulnerable groups, and vulnerable groups of students may need greater mental health supports that few schools or agencies are providing. I don’t think we [consider] youth that are gang-affiliated very often when we think about school mental health or suicide prevention. 

For certain groups of students within a school, a higher proportion of similar students could become a protective factor, instead of being more more at risk. For example, if a school climate can become welcoming and accepting, having more vulnerable groups in a school could lower suicidal ideation. We see this protective dynamic with LGBT youth that have others like them in a school. It is possible that this dynamic also works for foster or homeless kids [contemplating suicide]. 

In California for LGBT groups, schools are providing more gay-straight alliances and a better understanding for students that there are other kids like them. For other groups that are maybe more invisible or not seen, things are more difficult – for example, for homeless or foster kids. When working in San Diego, several of our research projects showed that a supportive, culturally responsive, and resourced school could help many groups that are vulnerable, such as military or veteran-connected youth who have experienced separation, many schools, and parents in harm’s way.

Our overall take on a variety of studies is that the more that a school’s welcoming and caring supports can improve child-teacher interactions and reflect students’ identity and whole culture without turning it into a therapy or mental health issue alone, the more they can prevent levels of suicidal thoughts to begin with. If some students need therapy or additional services, it should not be framed in a stigmatic way either. 

The other issue – not in this study but in other studies – is this group of kids that have actually attempted [suicide] and come back to the school. California collects that data too, with the California Healthy Kids Survey Suicide Prevention Modules.

I think many high schools are very confused around what to do to support those students when they return to schools. These students are particularly vulnerable to what happens in the school when they get back. Many schools and families struggle with questions about telling school staff so some can support the student, or if the students’ closest peer group should know or be involved in the reintegration or not. 

What our qualitative work suggests – not just this particular study – is that students know other students who are contemplating or thinking about suicide because they very often are talking to each other about these issues within close peer groups. Large numbers of students in school know before a suicide attempt and they know after a student comes back to school. 

Schools would do better to planfully reintegrate students who attempted suicide rather than keeping it a big “medical” secret, [while] avoiding careful planning, monitoring and social integration back into the peer group that often knows about the attempt through rumor and gossip. That group is a very big risk group – kids who’ve attempted who then go back to a school, where there is a large proportion of kids who have suicidal ideation. You may get more attempts and more completed suicides from that group of students at those schools.

&: How about the connections between mass shootings and suicide?

Astor: We think they are very connected in the sense that a large proportion of those who do school shootings have also shown suicidal ideation and behaviors.  Often before a shooting, the shooter leaves a suicide note or video openly showing the intent to kill themselves and others.  It’s probably more accurate to see those adolescents as suicidal and homicidal. The combination of the two is very frightening.

State surveys ask students if they brought a gun, if they brought a knife or a club, if they have been threatened, or if they saw someone with a weapon on school grounds. These are all things that happen before an event. And the students know, and they report it every year. What we’re finding is the schools that have the highest suicide rates also have access to weapons.  

In June of 2019, I organized a congressional briefing in Washington D.C. on the issue of weapons in school and how to approach the reduction in a welcoming, supportive, caring and constructive way that would provide more services to students who need it the most. We created a policy brief, a podcast, and scientific chapter. We also partnered with APA, AERA, NASW, SSWAA, and many other organizations to conduct a congressional briefing. We think this needs to be addressed both by policy and school-by-school. 

&: What are some of your proposed solutions?

Astor: You need to have a whole culture of support, not just an individual mental health approach—although that is very much needed as well. We’re not identifying individual kids in our schoolwide approach – we’re identifying geographic regions and schools with high proportions of kids with suicidal ideation. 

California has a good MTSS (Multi-Tiered Support System), but it’s often not linked to statewide data. We’re surprised that California does not have a system for district, community, and state level resources because we think you could reduce the suicide ideation rate with a plan. Our sense is that if you knew where these high-risk schools were, you could then marshal all sorts of resources to these places [like] mental health supports and connecting them with communities. 

We’ve written several recent books on this published by Oxford University Press. The state could create algorithms that trigger supports for those schools and save many lives.  In Israel and Chile, we use our mapping and monitoring approaches where student, teacher, and parent voices drive the community responses. We would recommend something similar for both weapons and suicidal ideation. Empowering the community, especially students, teachers and parents to change their contexts can further resilience.

I think the school level approach – bringing in the community, not a focus on individuals – can greatly reduce stigma. It could really provide many resources to the peer group and to teachers on issues of suicide and weapons – this is something that we really haven’t tried to do in a caring positive way as a society. 

We need more counselors, more psychologists, and more social services, but we also need all CSU and UC teachers to be trained in basic knowledge that furthers SEL, positive school climate, welcoming practices, and culturally competent ways to support. If educators knew, for example that 50 percent of the kids in their particular school had suicidal ideation, would they think about their academic subject matter work differently? Would they conduct class discussion in a different way? 

In our experience with hundreds of schools, the answer is yes. If it’s about their own kids at their own school, we see teachers actually thinking about being more caring and supportive, open to resources. When it’s “out of sight, out of mind,” then it’s easy to ignore and to say it’s a family issue, community issue, or a mental health issue. But if you want kids to learn math and literature and writing, knowing that a large number of students are thinking of suicide in your school is important because it might change your instructional methods and your way of thinking to be more relational. 

Even with things like a literature class, where you have a teacher teaching Shakespeare and “Romeo and Juliet,” where suicide is part of it – there are a lot of things that university schools of education could teach students so that teachers would have this knowledge pre-service.  There are things school districts could do to make their schools caring and responsive to these students.

To read, “The role of school-level factors in suicidal ideation in California schools,” by Professor Ron Avi Astor, PhD; Rami Benbenishty, PhD; and Ilan Roziner, PhD, view this PDF.