Ron Avi Astor’s social work career started out with a series of coincidences.
While a Master of Social Work student at USC in the 1980s, Astor, now the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor of Urban Social Development at the USC School of Social Work, discovered that his father had also attended the school – by coming across his thesis while performing research in a USC library. His father, who died of a heart attack when Astor was just a small child, wrote his thesis on the impact of wives whose husbands had been hospitalized due to cardiac illness. And his father and Richard Thor, the benefactor of the professorship Astor holds, were classmates.
But Astor’s accomplishments are certainly not the result of matters of chance. Over the last three decades, he has worked tirelessly to become an internationally renowned expert in school violence and safety. For his work, which has helped millions of students, teachers, parents and school administrators, the California Social Welfare Archives presented Astor with the George D. Nickel Award for Outstanding Professional Services by a Social Worker on April 2 at the USC Galen Center.
“Imagine all the events he has helped prevent, all the lives that have been saved and all the kids who have not been bullied because of his work,” said Executive Vice Dean R. Paul Maiden, who presented the award.
Astor’s work examines the role of the physical, social-organizational and cultural contexts in schools related to different kinds of school violence.
Over the past 10 years, his findings have been published in more than 150 scholarly manuscripts. His book, School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender, has been described by leading scholars in psychology, social work and education as the most comprehensive theoretically and empirically sound study of school violence conducted to date. The American Psychological Association recognized the contribution of the book with the William James Book Award in 2006, followed by the American Educational Research Association's (AERA) Outstanding Book Award in 2007. In 2010, he received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College based on this work. And in 2012, Astor was named an AERA fellow, a prestigious title that has been given to fewer than 500 education scholars nationwide.
Astor has also developed a school mapping and local monitoring procedure that has received several international awards. The procedure is now used in schools across the globe, including Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, Israel, with students and teachers generating grassroots solutions to safety problems.
“The homegrown practices are really important for us. We believe that there are social workers, teachers and principals who have really good ideas, maybe even better than ours at the university system,” he said in his keynote speech.
Astor also served as co-chair of a national blue ribbon bullying task force that produced a series of 11 briefs titled Prevention of Bullying in Schools, Colleges and Universities, which present short-term and long-term strategies to address bullying of children and youth. The researchers contend that the term “bullying” is being overused and applied to everything from eye-rolling to criminal behavior. Astor and his colleagues urge school and college administrators to use the term “victimization” instead, among other recommendations.
Now Astor is applying knowledge gained from these prior studies to improve school climate in military-connected schools. As principal investigator, Astor and his colleagues are leading a Department of Defense Educational Activity funded-research partnership with eight Southern California school districts. The Building Capacity in Military-Connected Schools project has been working to create a national prototype for sustainable infrastructures that empower staff, students and parents to use evidence to improve school climate and address military students' special needs. The project has called upon the help of USC MSW students, some of whom perform their field internships with the collaborative’s schools, incorporating hands-on learning experiences for those interested in practicing military social work, an area of emphasis for the USC School of Social Work.
“Ron is what I call a lifer. He was born into USC,” said Executive Vice Dean R. Paul Maiden, who also noted that he wasn’t able to read Astor’s father’s thesis because it had been checked out since 1986 – to Astor.
“When you realize your time is limited, then every day and every life that you can help become precious. At the end of the day, why we’re here matters,” Astor said. “That’s why I keep that thesis, too.”
Two other leaders in social welfare also were recognized for their contributions at the awards ceremony.
Areta Crowell, former director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, received the George D. Nickel Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Welfare, which was presented by Marvin Southard, the current director of the department.
Crowell worked her way up in the Department of Mental Health from humble beginnings as a research analyst in 1967 to retiring as director in 1998. She also served as director of San Diego County Mental Health Services from 1988 to 1992, when a mental health outreach and treatment center in San Diego was named the Areta Crowell Center in her honor. She has held leadership positions in numerous mental health service organizations, including the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) known in California as Healthy Families, Mental Health America of Los Angeles, Mental Health Association of California, National Mental Health Association, California Institute for Mental Health, California Mental Health Directors’ Association, California Mental Health Coalition and California Psychological Association Foundation.
Long-time educator Jean Daniels won the Frances Lomas Feldman Excellence in Education Award, which was presented by Amy Levin, PhD department chair of the Department of Social Work at California State University, Northridge.
Daniels has taught sociology and social work for nearly 40 years. She developed the Master of Social Work program at California State University, Northridge, and was one of the first African-American women to be part of the faculty in the university’s sociology department. Daniels began her career in education as a part-time lecturer in 1976, working her way to full professor of sociology in 1987 and social work in 2006. She also served as director of the university’s Center for Education and Research in Gerontology for 20 years. Daniels has been part of the Committee on Leadership Identification for multiple regions of the California Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, as well as an executive committee member of the NASW-Region G San Fernando Valley Unit, which recognized her contributions to the social work profession by naming her Social Worker of the Year in 2002.
Established in 1979, the California Social Welfare Archives maintains one of the most extensive and complete collections of California social welfare history. The volunteer-based group of social workers, librarians, archivists and other community leaders collects, preserves and makes available historically significant information that documents the emergence of social problems and the development of social welfare answers in California. The organization conducts its activities under the auspices of the USC School of Social Work, with its collections housed in the university library's Department of Special Collections located in Doheny Memorial Library.