Ron Avi Astor: New Course in School Safety Takes Interdisciplinary Approach

UCLA scholars and physicians from education, social work, medicine, law, and psychology provide expertise in undergrad course.

When Ron Avi Astor recalls arriving on campus in July 2019, he says that the topic of a school safety in the context of a global pandemic was not on anyone’s radar screen.

“None of the school safety experts and none of the meetings I’ve had over these years, you know, decades, have said, ‘When the pandemic comes, this is how we should prepare,’” notes Astor, who is the Marjorie Crump Chair Professorship in Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs with a joint appointment in the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies (SEIS). “Even though the CDC and WHO said a pandemic is coming, and even though we had H1N1 and Ebola years before, we thought of them as localized. We didn’t think of them as global school safety issue in our research and practice.”

Astor, who had arrived at UCLA to share his expertise in school safety, said that his respective Schools worked together across campus to build collaboration among faculty and researchers from UCLA public health, medicine, education, social work, public policy, and psychology in order to address what was then a national outbreak of school shootings and hate crimes against Blacks, Latinx, Muslims, Jews, Asians, immigrants, and LGBTQ individuals. 

Today, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread inequities that it has exposed in education, the vision that Astor and his colleagues across disciplines has come to fruition in an undergraduate course on school safety titled, “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools,” currently offered by UCLA Luskin, with the goal is to have it cross-listed in coming years across campus. Professor Astor believes this is one of the first undergraduate interdisciplinary courses on school safety and welcoming schools in the country and perhaps the world. 

“I think it took a little bit of an adjustment for us to realize … all the interconnections in a school,” he says. “Kids are in harm’s way, teachers are in harm’s way, parents are in harm’s way. The pandemic highlights that because of how our social connections are not an abstract concept anymore. You actually have a virus that could transfer in those social connections, so it becomes a very practical issue. It has also highlighted, for example, national discussions on teachers’ health needs and mental health needs, and students’ needs. It raises questions about social injustice and inequity of resources to the hardest hit communities and schools. 

“The global pandemic shines a bright light on many blind spots that we had as a society when we discuss and research school safety—particularly, whose safety are we talking about – is it only the kids, the teachers… the parents? COVID-19 opened an important discussion about school staff, the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers, secretaries, janitors, and those who work with students outside the classroom, like social workers, psychologists, nurses and counselors. It has also raised for policy makers and the general public awareness about what we’ve been talking about in social work and education academic gatherings for decades and decades, the racial, social, and equity in our educational system – there hasn’t been much done about it –in a transformational way–in terms of policy, so we have schools that we know have been understaffed and not resourced well. The pandemic highlighted these well-documented inequities and started a public conversation about them”

Astor’s course examines the historical context and etiology of school violence, theories and diverse perceptions of school climate and safety, contributing factors in the school environment and student culture, and how to promote safety in schools, with an emphasis on the impact of school climate on oppressed groups and how social contexts such as poverty and neighborhood resources influence school safety. Through readings and guest lectures from experts across UCLA and the nation, the course will provide a look at programs and organizational processes that aim to strengthen schools in monitoring, evaluating, and regulating safety, and creating a supportive school culture.

Topics explored will include COVID-19 and school safety; bullying and other forms of peer victimization, including sexual harassment; racism, inequality, and other hate crimes; the school-to-prison pipeline; weapons and drug use; interventions for vulnerable groups (e.g., LGBTQ, undocumented students, students of color, homeless students, foster kids, students with disabilities, and military kids); and promoting health and mental health through social emotional learning; and youth empowerment. The course will also provide material related to crisis intervention and trauma response in schools.

Guest speakers from across the UCLA campus will represent research and practices from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, the UCLA School of Nursing, Department of Psychology, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the UCLA School of Law, the Fielding School of Public Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine.

Topical experts from the UCLA Department of Education whose work will be cited in the course include Sandra Graham, Distinguished Professor of Education and Presidential Chair in Education and Diversity; Connie Kasari, professor of human development and psychology and professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine.

In addition, SEIS researchers and faculty will serve as guest speakers for the course, including Joseph Bishop, director, Center for the Transformation of Schools (CTS); Professor Tyrone Howard, director, Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families and CTS faculty director; and Professor John Rogers, faculty director of UCLA Center X and director of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA).

Representatives of UCLA Luskin whose research will be highlighted in the course include  Meredith Phillips, associate professor of public policy and sociology and chair of undergraduate affairs; Jorja Leap, adjunct professor and executive director of the Health and Social Justice Partnership; and Carlos Santos, associate professor. UCLA Luskin speakers include Professor Laura Abrams, chair of social welfare; Brad Rowe, lecturer of public policy; and Laura Wray-Lake, associate professor of social welfare.

Other guest speakers for the course include Pia Escudero, executive director, LAUSD Student Health and Human Services; Melissa Brymer, program director of the National for Child Traumatic Stress, a partnership between UCLA and Duke University; Adrian Huerta (’12, M.A., Higher Education and Organizational Change; ’16, Ph.D., HEOC), assistant professor of education, USC Rossier School of Education; and Jonathan B. Singer, associate professor of social work, Loyola University Chicago. 

Astor says that he hopes that a holistic, bottom-up approach to school climate and safety that recognizes the unique conditions at schools will enhance how universities prepare future educators and administrators, and how schools adapt to the post-pandemic need for more social workers and psychologists in the coming years.

“With all these programs and ideas, you’re going to have the same issue when you look at school safety broadly the way we’re talking about it,” observes Astor. “Some people think that if you have a program, it’s like a vaccine – just take it, do it the right way. Other people are thinking, even in L.A., if you have a thousand schools, they’re so different from place to place—each school deserves it own unique solution that fits that school and the community it serves. The school is part of the community.”

Professor Astor envisions further UCLA-wide collaboration in the future with the course, and says that there is the capacity on campus to involve students in research projects and intervention projects from the University’s various centers and Schools, even extending the reach to engineering, for its expertise in big data, and to the arts, which would provide a form of healing. 

“That would make it more vibrant, given all the issues and bringing people together from different disciplines,” Astor says. “It would be great to involve students from those [departments] so that we can actually start bridging some of the humanities, the arts and social sciences, and the medical field, which I think many of us intuitively feel makes sense.”

Astor cites Professor Howard’s current message of “radical care” as what is needed most in schools today in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and other the issues around inequity, systemic racism, and violence that it has magnified.

“You’re now getting different national dialogues that have not been actively debated by the public and policy makers – Some of  the ideas we discuss in the course about the safety of schools in a caring way are not new,” says Astor. “They’ve been there in siloed literatures and with professionals doing the important work, but now they’re amplified globally because it’s not just the impact of the pandemic – it’s the confluence of it happening at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2020 election, raising these issues of shootings. I think it’s the combination of these things that have raised the macro policy and norm changing social ecological layers, and we’ve never really spent a whole lot of time as a society connecting with the welcoming and caring school aspects of school safety.  We’ve talked [in terms of] programs and social emotional learning that fix social problems from a deficit perspective, but now we are having conversations about what do we want our schools to be from a caring, welcoming, loving, democratic point of view as well.  

“Tyrone’s comments on radical care – what I think it’s raising for the first time is …. we need is a place that fits the democratic and civic ideals and purpose of what our country aspires to be,” says Professor Astor. “The work of Joe Bishop and John Rogers, respectively, describe schools that convey the message that we care for you whether you’re undocumented, in foster care, have special needs, or you’re homeless – the fact that school will be part of the solution—in some ways creating an alternative and positive vision of what we want our society to become. 

“The new vision proposes that schools won’t just respond to crisis. It will recognize the inequities, uplift and inspire student, and graciously create a community of educators, peers, families that will help each child, it will help their families. Schools could be the place where we show this type of elevated care, love, and support. And if we do that, our society could actually take care of a lot of these issues that hundreds of programs are trying to do—in siloed ways and not fully succeeding. I hope this course will be a platform where we could have some of this dialogue.”

Visit these links for lessons on “Writing a Policy Brief and Op-Ed” and “Creating TikTok and TED Talks,” from Professor Astor’s course on “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools.”

Above: Courtesy of Ron Avi Astor