Sticks and Stones

Ask the Experts

Sticks and Stones

UF experts explain how research can address school and interpersonal violence.

illustration of young boy with backpack facing away, against orange backgroundUF faculty members Maddy Coy, Dorothy Espelage, Abigail Fagan, and Bonnie Moradi all tackle social issues from their respective academic discipline, and each has a remarkably interdisciplinary background. Fagan combines sociology and criminology to study how communities can prevent violence. Coy is a women’s studies scholar with community-based research and public policy expertise. Espelage is a psychologist with extensive knowledge of child development. Moradi uses her background in psychology and women’s studies to direct UF’s Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research. All four are core or affiliate faculty in the Center. Their areas of study — bullying, discrimination and inequalities, violence against women, and youth violence — have been trending topics for years, and the researchers aim to find the best ways to merge theory with data, knowledge with practice, and policy with results.

Not only are you all based in an educational institution, but much of your work revolves around using research to make campuses safer. What does and doesn’t work?

Fagan: Historically, and even today still, the first response is what we call “deterrence” — a very reactive response that is meant to punish criminals, make more arrests, and put them away for longer years. The problem is that that doesn’t get at the root causes. What does work are skills-building programs that teach kids how to make better decisions.
Espelage: Not all kids who bully are rejected. It’s not just “bad kids” who do bad things. And so, zero-tolerance approaches have been shown not to work, because these behaviors aren’t occurring in a vacuum. The approach I publish quite a bit on is a social-emotional learning program that teaches kids effective communication and conflict resolution skills.
Fagan: Similarly, what we have learned is that when you just try to scare kids into not using drugs or breaking the law, it’s another one of those deterrence tactics that doesn’t work. Effective programs focus on building skills, teaching kids how to make better decisions, how to think about what they want to achieve in the future, and resist peer pressures to use drugs or commit crimes.

Many of you have done applied work, that is, using your research to effect real change or in collaboration with community groups. What are some of your successes?

Fagan: I have done a lot of hands-on work in this area. Before I came to UF, I spent five years at the University of Washington. I was involved in a randomized controlled trial that was a scientific evaluation of a community-based crime and drug intervention strategy. I was a trainer who went out to communities and talked to them about their concerns regarding youth delinquency, violence, and drug use. What we were testing was a structured process of mobilizing community members — educating them about the causes of crime, gauging which causes of the crime were prevalent in their community, and then putting into place effective prevention strategies that targeted those causes. Getting the whole community involved was important to show youth that the community cared about them.
Coy: I am a feminist scholar who is interested in how we connect up the knowledge from practice — working with victims/survivors of violence — with theories and concepts about inequalities. I previously was Deputy Director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit of London Metropolitan University, and before that, I worked in organizations such as women’s shelters with women in the sex industry. Now, what I hope is that my students go out and have these conversations with their peers. I think one of the greatest things in the classroom is to hear them say, “You know, I was having this conversation with my roommate just last night!” You can hear that they’ve taken what we’ve discussed in class and begun to challenge things they think are problematic.
Espelage: All my work happens in schools and with community groups that have direct impact on bully prevention and promoting positive school climate. Also, my scholarship has been directly used by nonprofit organizations to advocate for state and federal legislation aimed at protecting sexual and gender minority youth, advocating for students with disabilities, and greater resources for school prevention efforts.

These topics are trending in the news and on social media, as well as in popular culture. What do you think of the portrayal of and dialogue surrounding these topics?

Fagan: The biggest myth is always that crime is out of control, worse than it’s ever been, but in fact we know that crime rates have decreased significantly since the ’80s. But we focus so much attention on heinous crimes that it promotes the idea there’s so much of it going on. Or it’s the idea that we don’t know why it happens, and we can’t prevent it. There’s always this sentiment about teenagers — “kids will be kids,” they’re going to drink alcohol, get into fights, and no one really gets hurt — but the reality is that some of those kids go on to become pretty serious offenders or have problems with drug use and drug addiction. We know that if we can build better schools, create healthier families, and support a stronger community, we can actually reduce delinquency.
Espelage: I’ve done work with the Ad Council developing media guidelines for reporters because they don’t always cover bullying events and laws accurately. Sometimes this can have the effect of justifying punitive responses to bullying or even glamorizing the suicides of bullying victims. Eighty percent of the news coverage on bullying is on bullying-related suicide. Ten percent is about legislation. Only ten percent is about prevention.
Coy: Anything that starts a conversation about sexual violence and sexual harassment is a good thing, in particular, the way social media enables different voices to be heard. I think that the gains of #MeToo are in enabling women to name their experiences. What I was really happy to see is the shift toward #TimesUp and the follow-up of making connections with the actions of perpetrators — asking why they did that rather than what the victims did. I think that was a very important shift.
Moradi: In the media, there are subtle framings that are just so ubiquitous that we don’t see them anymore, and when you do bring them to light, there’s a lot of resistance to viewing them as problematic because they have been so ubiquitous — part of how we do things. The challenge in moving from not seeing to seeing is that when you question the thing that has not been questioned, you are accused of being biased. Yet the thing — a song, for example — represents an unspoken particular set of values, but it’s viewed as neutral.

How does an interdisciplinary approach help your work?

Coy: We have academic subjects that provide the theoretical tools that enable students to engage with the decades of thinking that’s been going on. Activism comes out of those ideas, then feeds back into those ideas. We need to recognize the value of the scholarship that does that.
Fagan: There’s still more work to be done to uncover more evidence about what leads to these behaviors, so that we can then design interventions that are actually going to change those factors, and so that we can better identify the kids who are at risk and get them the services that they need early on. Violence has many causes, including psychological, social, and structural factors. So, it’s important for social scientists to collaborate with others and play a role in both types of research about youth problems, both the traditional science about what causes delinquency, violence, and drug use, and also designing interventions and testing them out to see if they’re actually effective in preventing these behaviors.
Espelage: Youth violence is a complex public health issue that needs all disciplines on board and working together rather than in isolation. My intervention studies and evaluations involve working with other researchers in public health, education, sociology, social work, school psychology, and criminology. Translation of my research is achieved as I work with teachers, school administrators, etc.
Moradi: We can’t conceptualize, say, sexism in isolation — it’s interconnected with racism and heterosexism and class inequality and all of these systems of inequality.
Coy: — and for discussion of that, we create those spaces in our classroom.