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R. Barbara Gitenstein Headshot

Guns on Campus, and Beyond

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It is exasperating to watch gun control reform stall in Congress. While measures such as an assault weapons ban and universal background checks represent good sense, I don't put too much stock in their power to reduce gun violence meaningfully in crime-ridden neighborhoods and troubled homes. Even if these measures muster the votes to pass, our work would be far from finished.

As sensible as they are, I'm concerned these measures offer simplistic answers to complex problems and don't attack those problems at the root. They fail to address, for example, the street violence that tears at cities like Trenton, N.J., where young people are gunned down year after year not by madmen wielding automatic weapons but by other young people carrying handguns.

What's needed are policies that address the underlying social, cultural, and mental health factors that drive gun violence, with the understanding that these issues vary from one region of the country to another. As the factors differ across locales, so should the solutions. In Trenton, the cycle of violence begins with poverty at birth and accelerates over a lifetime of interrupted schooling, inadequate social engagement, and missed career opportunities. Our youth need targeted interventions before they drop out of school and drastically limit their options and life expectancies.

Over the past several years, college leaders across the country have successfully parried proposals to permit concealed guns on their campuses with forceful, data-driven arguments showing campuses are safer without them. This is wise policy that protects students. New Jersey has strict gun-control policies, including mandatory background checks and a ban on concealed weapons on campus. As the national conversation over gun control takes many twists and turns in the coming months, I hope we in academia will advocate with the same reason and passion for the lives outside our walls.

State institutions like The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), with a public service mission and strong ties to the community, can and should play a role in developing regional strategies by working closely with local stakeholders to identify problems, analyze data, and recommend credible, data-backed policies. TCNJ has taken important steps in this direction, but I'm confident there is more we can do.

Since 2011, TCNJ's Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement has served on the Trenton Prevention Policy Board, a group of educators, community advocates, and government officials charged by the state Attorney General with identifying policies and programs that will help keep the region's young people out of the criminal justice system while promoting their positive development. The board's working groups focus on juvenile crime and domestic violence prevention, but also on health, education and employment.

Many of the proposals to come out of these and other local policy groups focus on keeping kids in school and helping them build life skills. They include reducing the drop-out rate between middle school and high school with enhanced transition programs, developing a "job coach" program for young men and women entering the workforce, and matching the younger brothers and sisters of juvenile offenders with social service providers who are able to assess and respond to their needs.

With the College's encouragement, the Bonner Center has reached out to engage the wider campus population in these efforts. TCNJ faculty members participate by researching proposed prevention policies to ensure their effectiveness is supported by data. Students outside of the Bonner program take part in social service projects through our Community Engaged Learning program. When Bonner teams identified students in Trenton middle and high schools at risk of failing the statewide assessment tests, for example, the teams were able to flood the schools with tutors to help focus and prepare the young students. Given TCNJ's public mandate and our responsibility to expose our students to the issues they will encounter as adults, I feel this is a good use of the time and talents of the students, faculty, and staff.

Undoubtedly, the policies governing background checks and concealed weapons on our campus make it easier to focus our energies on gun violence in the urban communities nearby; however, we do not naively assume that we are immune from it. We take emergency planning seriously.

A critical incident planning group meets throughout the year and runs tabletop exercises for scenarios ranging from an active shooter, to a power outage, to an infectious disease outbreak. TCNJ has sent more than a dozen staff members to national emergency management and training programs. With the help of the New Jersey State Police, TCNJ has staged live active-shooter drills on campus and invited local law-enforcement agencies to participate.

It is unquestionably our responsibility to advocate for wise policies on our campus and prepare, as best we can, to prevent and respond to violent crime at our college. That, however, is not sufficient. We can and must do more for the communities and people beyond our campus boundaries.