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Local research, upcoming conference seek to address many forms of school violence

UMSL criminologists Lee Slocum (at left) and Finn Esbensen discussed a variety of safety issues that students and teachers deal with daily.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
UMSL criminologists Lee Slocum (at left) and Finn Esbensen discussed a variety of safety issues that students and teachers deal with daily.

Mass shootings in U.S. schools continue to occur and make headlines. Other types of school violence, typically affecting one or two students at a time, garner less attention and more often end in suicide than homicide.

That’s according to University of Missouri–St. Louis criminologist Finn Esbensen, whose recent research in St. Louis County schools alongside colleague Lee Ann Slocum suggests that many young people struggle with school attendance out of fear for their safety.

“Twenty-five percent of the kids mentioned that at least once in the past year have they not attended school because of concerns for their safety, and about 10 percent of them it’s been multiple times that they’ve not attended school because of that,” said Esbensen, the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Youth Crime and Violence, during Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

“That has negative consequences for them in terms of their school performance,” he continued, “eventual school completion, graduation … insidious kinds of things [that] are impacted by less serious kinds of violence than the school shootings.”

Slocum, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, joined Esbensen and host Don Marsh for the conversation. She said that the most effective intervention programs focus on changing the school environment.

“Trying to build better relationships between teachers and students, a more supportive climate, things like that,” Slocum explained. “You can also intervene by target hardening, which involves the use of things like metal detectors, cameras, locked doors during the school day. And most schools do have some form of target hardening, or many schools do. But there’s very few studies to find that that is effective.”

Ranging from theft to bullying and cyberbullying, common forms of school violence can also be impacted by exposure to violence outside of the school, she added.

“We know that, in the city, the firearm death rate for youth is more than three times the national rate [and] the St. Louis area is ninth in the nation for the number of youth who are murdered by guns,” Slocum said. “And most victims in the city are under the age of 25 … So they bring that trauma with them, and that can lead to things like acting out in school, externalizing behaviors where they have a hard time sitting in class, and it can lead to problems with performance in school as well.”

Esbensen added that for every child that is killed in a school shooting, there are “60 to 100 that are killed in their communities.”

The discussion touched on exclusionary discipline strategies such as suspension and expulsion, with Slocum pointing to information collected through the U.S. Department of Education about the 2.8 million students who were suspended in the U.S. during the 2013-2014 academic year.

“Black students were nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students [and] nearly twice as likely to be expelled,” she said, noting that the pattern was even more pronounced in the preschool years. “So we do know that it has the harm of disproportionately affecting African-Americans. We also don’t really have any good evidence that it makes schools safer places.”

The producers of St. Louis Public Radio’s podcast “We Live Here” reported in-depth about St. Louis Public Schools banning out-of-school suspensions for young students, beginning with the 2016-2017 school year. At the time, the St. Louis district was one of only a handful in the country to adopt a prohibition on such suspensions.

Related Event

What: Youth Violence Prevention Conference
When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, April 12
Where: UMSL’s J.C. Penney Conference Center (1 University Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63121)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.