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Rowell Huesmann
L. Rowell Huesmann

School Safety Commission Hears Diverse Views on Influence of Violence in Media

By Linda Jacobson, Education Dive 6/22/18

Psychologists and researchers may be able to identify who is at risk for committing acts of school violence, but those assessments are still imprecise, L. Rowell Huesmann, a professor at the University of Michigan, told the Federal Commission on School Safety Thursday during a meeting focused on violence in the media, the role of video games and entertainment, and the impact of cyberbullying.

“We’re never going to be very good at predicting at a time who is going to shoot up a school,” Huesmann told U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who chairs the commission, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and representatives from the departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Homeland Security (DHS).

He added that screening students for mental health issues is not an effective prevention strategy, but that the more children and youth are exposed to violence — whether at home, in the community or in the media — the more “accepting” their brains become of using violence as a way to solve problems.

Noting that he and Huesmann often disagree on these issues, Christopher Ferguson, an associate psychology professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., said that the notion that youth who play violent video games are more likely to become violent is not backed by research. The U.S. Supreme Court also agreed with then-Justice Antonin Scalia’s writing in Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Assn. that, “These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason.”
Ferguson added, “Our brains do seem to be efficient, even from fairly young ages, at distinguishing among reality and fiction.”

The session, which was live streamed on YouTube, also included Sioux City (Iowa) Community School District Superintendent Paul Gausman, who described his district’s efforts to prevent and respond to cyberbullying, including a Mentors in Violence Prevention program in which peers teach each other by creating “life-like scenarios.”

The district was featured nationally in the 2011 documentary “Bully,” which Gausman said opened the district up to criticism but also created a “meaningful conversation” about bullying and cyberbullying — not just in school, but in the community, as well. He said that while the district monitors students’ social media activity, he would like policymakers to give school leaders more authority to use students’ social media posts in their investigations of bullying.

Sameer Hinduja, a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University and the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, provided updated data showing that, among 5,700 middle and high school students, 34% report being cyberbullied and 12% report bullying someone else online. Creating positive school climates and positive norms around social media use can help reduce this form of bullying, he said.

“Schools must work to create a setting in which the responsible use of social media is just what we do around here,” he told the commission.

He added that many efforts within schools to address cyberbullying are random, “ad hoc and off-the-cuff,” and that student-led programs are likely to be more successful. “The last thing we want to do is waste time, effort and resources on adult-led initiatives that students know would never gain any traction,” he said.

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