Can afterschool programs play a role in preventing tragic school shootings? The answer to this question, while unclear, is worth exploring. The 2017 data from Vermont’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey suggest that there is a negative correlation between participation in afterschool activities and weapons being carried in school. The data show that students who did not participate in any afterschool activities were far more likely to report carrying a weapon (such as a gun, knife, or club) to school than those who participated in between one and 19 hours of afterschool activities per week.
On the survey, over 20,000 high school students in Vermont answered questions about their levels of participation in “risk” behaviors (such as carrying weapons to school) as well as “asset” behaviors (such as participation in afterschool activities). A total of 20,025 students responded to items about carrying weapons to school and about participation in extracurricular activities. Among students who did not participate in any number of hours of afterschool activities during the week, 9.1% reported that they did carry a weapon on school property in the month leading up to the survey. Among students who participated in between one and four hours of weekly programming, this percentage was cut nearly in half to 4.7%. For students that participated in between five and nine hours of activities, 5.1% responded that they carried a weapon to school; and for students that participated between ten and 19 hours of activities, 4.0% reported carrying a weapon to school. For students who participated in between one and 19 hours of weekly afterschool programming, the percentage of students that reported carrying weapons to school was about half of what it would have been otherwise.
A similar effect can be seen between afterschool participation and and the percentages of high school students who were threatened or injured by a weapon on school property. For high school students who did not participating in any hours of extracurricular activities, 6.0% were threatened or injured by a weapon on school property at least once in the 12 months leading up to the survey. The percentages of students who reported being threatened or injured by weapons on school property decreased continuously as their weekly hours of participation in extracurricular activities increased (up to 19 hours). For students who participated in between one and four weekly hours of programming, 4.0% reported being threatened or injured; for students who participated in between five and nine hours of programming, 3.5% reported being threatened or injured; and for students who participated in between 10 and 19 hours of programming, 3.0% reported being threatened or injured by a weapon on school property.
So why were students who participated in a moderate amount of afterschool programming much less likely to report either carrying weapons to school or being threatened or injured by a weapon on school property than those who did not participate in any amount of afterschool programming? Are afterschool activities the direct cause of this phenomenon or is there a third unknown variable that is causing this phenomenon (a classic case of correlation vs. causation)? Currently, there is a lack of evidence to help answer these questions. Without rigorous peer-reviewed research to control for variables, it is impossible to say with certainty whether participation in extracurricular activities is directly responsible for students choosing not to bring weapons to school.
What we do know is that quality afterschool activities can help students build their social and emotional skills and also engage them in meaningful activities that are important to them. Elizabeth Englander, Professor of Psychology, and the Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) at Bridgewater State University believes in the power of schools to teach social and emotional skills in order to reduce gun violence. In an article for The Conversation, she wrote, “social and emotional skills can – and should – be taught in school as a way to prevent student violence.” Participation in afterschool programs can help students increase their social-emotional competencies and quite possibly significantly reduce the chance that they will want to bring a weapon to school or find themselves in a situation where they are harmed as a result of someone else brining a weapon to school. Vermont’s data seems to support this idea. And while national debate about gun control seems to be forever at a standstill, it is nice to know that advocating for more quality afterschool programs can serve to reduce the risk that guns and other weapons get brought to school and used to threaten or harm high school students.
Special notes/further analysis:
We can see from this analysis that moderate amounts of participation in afterschool activities (between 1 and 19 hours per week) correspond with decreased instances of weapons being carried to school and also decreased instances of students being threatened or injured by weapons on school property. However, in 2017 students who participated in over 20 hours per week of programming reported higher instances of both carrying weapons to school and being threatened or injured by a weapon on school property. Among students who participated in 20 or more hours of extracurricular activities, 9.7% reported carrying a weapon on school property and 8.6% reported being threatened or injured by a weapon on school property. What is happening with this “20+ hours” category? Why was there an increase in weapons being carried and students being threatened/injured among those who participate in 20 or more hours of afterschool activities?
We don’t know for sure, but we hypothesize that those who participated in such a high number of hours of activities were participating in sports. On the 2017 YRBS, the question related to afterschool participation read, “In an average week when you are in school, how many total hours do you participate in afterschool activities such as sports, band, drama, or clubs run by your school or community groups?” Therefore, it is impossible to distinguish which responses were by students who participated in sports and which were by students who participated in other types of activities.
Related to sports participation, researchers that published a 2014 study in the Archives of Disease in Childhood assessed the well-being of Swiss teens (ages 16-20) based on their hours of participation in sports and found that the group with the highest level of weekly participation in sports (more than 17.5 hours per week) had lower well-being as measured by the WHO-5 Well-Being Index than those who participated in fewer weekly hours. There was a peak in well-being among teens who participated in 14 hours per week. Likewise, a 2007 study in the American Sociological Review examined the extent to which participating in high school sports led to male violence and concluded that there is a strong relationship between contact sports, particularly football and violence among high school boys. Perhaps the increased rates of carrying weapons to school and being injured or threatened by a weapons had to do with high school students participating in sports or maybe simply too many hours of extracurricular activities. Maybe there is something to be said for there being an “optimal” number of hours of participation in out-of-school time activities and a balanced lifestyle. (Topic for a future Data Digest post? Stay tuned.)
Read past Data Digest posts:
- Afterschool participation and connection with community (Nov. 2018)
- Afterschool participation and bullying (Oct. 2018)
- Afterschool participation and screen time/physical activity (Sept. 2018)
- Afterschool participation and academic performance (Aug. 2018)
- LGBT students and afterschool participation (July 2018)