Q&A with Dr. Matthew Mayer, One of the 50 Most Cited Rutgers University Professors of 2018

GSE Professor Dr. Matthew Mayer was recognized by Rutgers Today as one of the top 50 most cited Rutgers University professors. Dr. Mayer’s work at Rutgers GSE includes researching bullying, violence, and behavior in schools as well as advocating for and influencing positive change in public policy surrounding school safety. This Q&A highlight’s Dr. Mayer’s knowledge and expertise in the area of school safety and provides an opportunity for readers to learn more about the different ways school safety affects students, parents, and families across the nation.

1. On a daily basis, how do you think mainstream media reporting of school violence affects children’s ability to effectively learn in the classroom? 

It’s hard to make any precise determination—trying to map from media accounts to children being able to learn well in the classroom is difficult. However, I think it is fair to say that for some parents and children, excessive and sometimes distorted media coverage of school violence can lead to anxiety that can result in students being less able to attend to learning.


2. What is your ideal vision for addressing school violence in the next 5 years? 

I hope that there will be a growing national consensus that while attention to school security measures can be appropriate up to a point, a much greater proportion of attention and effort needs to address closing the trust and connectedness gap between schools and students/families, promoting more positive school climates, providing greater supports to students and families to meet a wide range of needs (academic, social, emotional, and behavioral), and reducing access to guns, especially those linked to mass attacks in schools and communities. 


3. You call for a public health approach to school violence – can you explain what that means? 

First and foremost, it implies a balance of health/wellness promotion and problem prevention, reducing risk factors and promoting protective (those that lead to better outcomes) factors, across multiple segments of the population and the ecologies of those involved, with multifaceted, multi-tiered programming.  It involves monitoring ongoing events to understand changing circumstances, enabling schools and communities to better target evolving needs, while also better understanding the ways and degree to which promotion and prevention efforts are helping. The public health approach draws from a multidisciplinary scientific base of research and it depends on widespread stakeholder participation, with collaborative structures to help schools and communities work well together in a coordinated manner. Ultimately, this will  reduce fragmentation and duplication of effort and allow schools to use limited resources most effectively.  


4. Why do you think that some people dismiss the idea that mental-health and school violence are in many cases linked? What influence can stigmas surrounding mental health have on addressing the relationship between mental health and school violence? 

First, mental health difficulties do not automatically imply a propensity towards aggression or violence. Most people with mental health challenges do not engage in aggressive or violent behaviors. It happens that a number of the so-called “school shooters” had a demonstrated history of mental health problems. But school violence more generally is in part, a reflection of our broader social ills. For example, we have limited support structures in many schools relative to the number of young people who need formal help to address mental health needs.  Also, many schools do not have a particularly positive school climate, where management may be more authoritarian, relying on punishment and zero tolerance types of approaches. Such negative environments are more conducive to aggressive and violent behaviors, not directly causing such behaviors, but rather, helping to set the stage where unresolved personal difficulties and interpersonal conflicts can lead to aggressive and violent behavior. Conversely, authoritative school management, where there is a balance of structure, supervision, and accountability structures, with a caring and supportive school environment that promotes student success, have been shown to greatly reduce levels of bullying and violence. There exists stigma regarding mental health needs as well as a tendency towards snap judgments when violence and mental health needs coexist.  Yet, many such situations can be more complex to understand.  


5. Who do you think has the greatest responsibility in terms of preventing school violence? Parents, teachers, principals, policy-makers, etc.?

The responsibility belongs to all stakeholders, including students, parents, school staff, school district administrators, families and other members of the community, local politicians, as well as state and national level leaders.  It belongs to everyone.