What Can We Do That Is Scientifically Proven to Reduce Shootings Like Columbine, Newtown, and Parkland?

March 10, 2018

Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Dennis D. Embry, PhD ~


Yes, it’s true that Americans are particularly good a killing each other. So put America in a convention of the advanced countries in Europe (minus Poland), plus Canada, Australia, Zealand, Japan, China and even India. We can shout about being number one for killing each other: “USA, USA, USA!” And yes it’s true that Columbia, South Africa, and other poor places are worse.

So let’s put aside the discussion of the enormous cache of guns just for the moment, to think about some data that we might be able to use quickly. Let’s talk about the science of preventing human violence in America. As you can see, it’s not mental illness per se predicting the probability of violence in America. The entire discussion of late is about guns versus mental illness.

During the 1990’s, my colleagues and I created the largest youth violence prevention project in schools in the United States [1], funded by the CDC, the Department of Education, and substantial money and resources from local government, local businesses, and the media (both print and broadcast). The strategy worked, tested via a randomized trial embedded in the community-wide effort. The CDC found the strategy reduced violent injuries in schools, by sending an EPI Team to investigate an “outbreak of peace and health” in schools [2]. The lead scientist on that publication is a leader at World Health Organization.[*] The success of this project was even reported in People Magazine (April 5, 1999). Subsequently, we reported sociological and other quite behavioral outcomes in Developmental Psychology for the research sites elementary schools that were picked because of their neighborhoods having the highest rates of violent crime [3]. A year later, we reported the effects on the children who had the highest levels of risk, with the finding that they changed the most [4].

Concurrently, another study was going on at Johns Hopkins—but I didn’t know anything about what it involved—until after the Columbine shootings in 1999. On that day, I was in San Luis Obispo, CA, doing teacher trainings using our procedures. Leaving the school, I turned on the radio and heard about Columbine. I knew I would get a call very soon, and I did. The Surgeon General, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Education invited me, and two-dozen other experts, to DC to discuss what to do about kids killing kids. I got to present our results, and fellow colleagues from Johns Hopkins presented their results [5-11]. 

Both his project and our project had deep roots in applied behavior analysis involving differential reinforcement—mostly by peers for positive behavior and not for engaging in problematic behavior.  Peer reinforcement among students for aggressive or deviant behavior (called the Matching Law or Deviancy Training) was well documented at the time of Columbine by my colleagues at the University of Oregon to cause both criminal violence and addictions in adolescence and adulthood [12-18]. Dr. Kellam, Dr. Ialongo, and I knew that science. So did scientists on the Fast Track Project studying conduct disorders beginning with elementary students in Durham, Nashville, rural Pennsylvania, and Seattle [19, 20].

Here are the amazingly simple things we can do now: teach students in preschool all the way up through high school to reinforce prosocial behaviors in each other rather than reinforcing “deviant” or antisocial or bullying behaviors in each other. And what are those prosocial behaviors? My colleagues and I can measure them, and you can see these behaviors in real time at home, school and in the community:

Now, how do we teach children to do this? Well, it’s not terribly difficult. You provide paper notes, make time for students to write the notes, give them the language of prosocial behaviors, space to post and share the notes, create mechanisms to share with the notes at school, at home, the community and even the media. Then, we watch children become happier, healthier, safer, and more engaged in positive future with a lot less aggression, drug use, mental illness, suicide, and violent crime—including using guns [9, 21-23].  And yes, our grandmothers were right to insist we write, “thank-you notes.” Now, there is world-class science to proven grandmothers’ wisdom.

Here is an example of what elementary school students write that have such powerful lifetime benefits.

image 2 

References Cited

  1. Embry, D.D., et al., PeaceBuilders: A theoretically driven, school-based model for early violence prevention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1996. 12(5, Suppl): p. 91.
  2. Krug, E.G., et al., The impact of an elementary school-based violence prevention program on visits to the school nurse. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1997. 13(6): p. 459-63.
  3. Flannery, D.J., et al., Initial behavior outcomes for the PeaceBuilders universal school-based violence prevention program. Developmental Psychology, 2003. 39(2): p. 292-308.
  4. Vazsonyi, A.T., L.M. Belliston, and D.J. Flannery, Evaluation of a School-Based, Universal Violence Prevention Program: Low-, Medium-, and High-Risk Children. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 2004. 2(2): p. 185-206.
  5. Kellam, S.G., et al., The course and malleability of aggressive behavior from early first grade into middle school: Results of a developmental epidemiology-based preventive trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 1994. 35: p. 259-281.
  6. Dolan, L.J., et al., The short-term impact of two classroom-based preventive interventions on aggressive and shy behaviors and poor achievement. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 1993. 14: p. 317-345.
  7. Werthamer-Larsson, L., S.G. Kellam, and L. Wheeler, Effect of first-grade classroom environment on shy behavior, aggressive behavior, and concentration problems. American Journal of Community Psychology, 1991. 19(4): p. 585-602.
  8. Kellam, S.G., et al., “The effect of the level of aggression in the first grade classroom on the course and malleability of aggressive behavior into middle school”: Erratum. Development & Psychopathology, 1999. 11(1): p. 193.
  9. Ialongo, N., et al., Proximal impact of two first-grade preventive interventions on the early risk behaviors for later substance abuse, depression, and antisocial behavior. American Journal of Community Psychology, 1999. 27(5): p. 599-641.
  10. Kellam, S.G., et al., The effect of the level of aggression in the first grade classroom on the course and malleability of aggressive behavior into middle school. Development and Psychopathology, 1998. 10: p. 165-185.
  11. Kellam, S.G. and J.C. Anthony, Targeting early antecedents to prevent tobacco smoking: Findings from an epidemiologically based randomized field trial. American Journal of Public Health, 1998. 88(10): p. 1490-1495.
  12. Dishion, T.J., et al., Deviancy training in male adolescents friendships. Behavior Therapy, 1996. 27(3): p. 373.
  13. Snyder, J.J. and G.R. Patterson, Individual differences in social aggression: A test of a reinforcement model of socialization in the natural environment. Behavior Therapy, 1995. 26(2): p. 371-391.
  14. Dishion, T.J., et al., Friendships and violent behavior during adolescence. Social Development, 1997. 6(2): p. 207-223.
  15. Dishion, T.J., D.M. Capaldi, and K. Yoerger, Middle childhood antecedents to progressions in male adolescent substance use: An ecological analysis of risk and protection. Journal of Adolescent Research, 1999. 14(2): p. 175-205.
  16. Dishion, T.J., J. McCord, and F. Poulin, When interventions harm: Peer groups and problem behavior. American Psychologist, 1999. 54(9): p. 755-764.
  17. Dishion, T.J. and G.R. Patterson, Model building in developmental psychopathology: A pragmatic approach to understanding and intervention. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 1999. 28(4): p. 502-512.
  18. Poulin, F., T.J. Dishion, and E. Haas, The peer influence paradox: Friendship quality and deviancy training within male adolescent friendships. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 1999. 45(1): p. 42-61.
  19. Group, C.P.P.R., Initial impact of the fast track prevention trial for conduct problems: I. The high-risk sample. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1999. 67(5): p. 631-647.
  20. Group, C.P.P.R., Initial impact of the fast track prevention trial for conduct problems: II. Classroom effects. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1999. 67(5): p. 648-657.
  21. Musci, R.J., et al., Reducing aggression and impulsivity through school-based prevention programs: A gene by intervention interaction. Prevention Science, 2013: p. No Pagination Specified.
  22. Petras, H., et al., Developmental epidemiological courses leading to antisocial personality disorder and violent and criminal behavior: Effects by young adulthood of a universal preventive intervention in first- and second-grade classrooms. Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 2008(Special Issue): p. 15.
  23. Kellam, S., et al., Effects of a universal classroom behavior management program in first and second grades on young adult behavioral, psychiatric, and social outcomes,. Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 2008(Special Issue): p. 24.

[*] Dr Etienne Krug is Director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Department for Management of Non-communicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention.

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embryDennis Embry, President/Senior Scientist at PAXIS Institute – Dennis D. Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Dennis Embry serves on the scientific advisory board for the Children’s Mental Health Network and the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services Advisory Council.

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