Historic NIH Grant Opens Door for Research on Preventing Gun Violence in Schools

September 28, 2021

Nearly every K-12 public school in the United States has policies in place with the intention to prevent firearm violence on their grounds. Yet due to limits on federal funding for gun violence research, these policies have been implemented without any understanding of whether or not they are effective. Now, with federal funding for this kind of research resuming, a new study led by researchers at Columbia Mailman School and Teachers College, Columbia University, aims to finally assess the impact of these policies.

A multi-million dollar NIH National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) grant is funding the project. It is among the first to address the wide-ranging repercussions of gun deaths and injuries since lawmakers curtailed federal spending on firearms research in the 1990s.

The Columbia-led study seeks to identify the impact of over two dozen safety tactics and policies on gun violence in schools across the U.S., both in cities and non-cities alike. The study team will be collecting data from more than 600 K-12 public schools.

“Through this work, our hope is to create safer learning environments and promote healthy experiences for all children across a variety of school communities,” said study co-principal investigator Sonali Rajan, associate professor of health education at Teachers College.  

Metal detectors, policies that permit school personnel to carry arms, and active shooter drills will be among the measures the research team will examine to understand what policies do or don’t deter gun violence in schools. They will also look at whether these safety strategies contribute to higher rates of student disciplinary actions.

“With little if any research in this space, schools across the nation have at times implemented unproven practices, like arming their teachers, and we want this new study to be a first step to making the best decisions on school safety in the future,” said study co-principal investigator, Charles Branas, Gelman Professor and Chair of Epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School.

A joint undertaking, the study will summon the talents of research faculty as well as student-researchers at Columbia Mailman and Teachers College. Researchers at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Children’s National Hospital, and connections to the American Association of School Administrators will also be a part of the effort.

The grant was one of ten awarded by the NIH as part of a historic $12.5 million effort to support “scientific research to develop, evaluate, and implement effective public health interventions to understand and prevent violence, including firearm violence, and the resulting trauma, injuries, and mortality.”

The NIH announced the funding opportunities in response to over 100,000 shootings and roughly 40,000 deaths due to firearms that continue to persist each year in the U.S, yet have received very little research funding compared with other public health crises.  

This NIH study reflects an ongoing collaboration between Rajan and Branas, and scholars across Columbia that includes the recent establishment of the Columbia SURGE (Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence).

Three Columbia Mailman faculty—Assistant Professor of Epidemiology Kara Rudolph, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Sociomedical Sciences Seth Prins, and Professor of Biostatistics Ken Cheung—are co-investigators. Teachers College Research Professor Louis Klarevas, author of Rampage Nation: Securing America from Mass Shootings, is also a co-investigator.

The NIH grant complements another multi-year study that Professors Rajan and Branas are also launching this fall on school gun violence. This second study is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through the Columbia Center for Injury Science and Prevention.

This study will allow Professors Rajan, Branas, and their research team to evaluate the impact of K-12 school gun violence and other adverse childhood experiences on youth health and educational outcomes. Professor John Allegrante at Teachers College joins as a co-investigator along with students from Columbia Mailman and Teachers College.