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Voices: We can prevent violence

Delbert Elliott, founding director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at CU-Boulder, and center director Beverly Kingston say violence at school and elsewhere can be stopped.

The horrific shooting that took place at an Aurora movie theater is another reminder that we can and must take action to prevent violence. As our hearts break from this sad and tragic event, we have an opportunity to turn some of our sadness and grief into action aimed at doing whatever it takes to prevent these tragedies from occurring in the future.

A key violence prevention strategy is good surveillance and good intelligence. Perpetrator warning signs were found in a study of school shootings conducted by the U.S. Secret Service. In four out of five school shootings they examined, someone knew the event was going to take place. They also found that most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused concern or indicated a need for help. There are warnings prior to most of these violent events.

We learned this after Columbine. The shooters left a series of red flags during the 18 months before the shooting. These included a hateful website, reports of bomb making, threats to another student, arrests for breaking into a vehicle, the acquisition of weapons, a hit list and disturbing school essays and videos. A number of different people were aware that the shooters were involved in significant problems and questionable activities. It was also true that no one in a position of authority was aware of all these signs prior to the event.

This led the Columbine Commission to recommend that a system be established in Colorado so that students and others could anonymously report conduct or situations that are potentially dangerous or troubling. Safe2Tell was established in 2003 under the leadership of the Colorado attorney general to ensure that all Colorado students, parents, teachers and community members have access to a safe and anonymous way to report any safety concerns. Tips are reported anonymously to a toll-free number (1-877-542-7233) or through a web reporting feature that can be accessed at and through two-way dialogue texting.

Our best chance of early intervention to prevent a tragedy of any nature is when we receive information about suspicious or concerning behavior.

Since 2004, Safe2Tell has received more than 11,000 calls resulting in 6,000 reports to law enforcement and schools. As a result of these anonymous reports, Safe2Tell has prevented 28 planned school attacks, responded to over 700 threats of violence, 1,546 bullying calls, 962 reports of substance abuse, 359 reports of sexually related crimes and taken more than 270 weapons from schools or school buses. Safe2Tell reports have also led to 799 successful interventions with depressed or suicidal children.

Sadly, as the investigation of the Aurora shooting unfolds, a roadmap of imminent warning signs is likely to be revealed in this case as well. Because these attacks are rarely sudden impulsive events, most shooters engage in pre-attack behaviors that involve obtaining weapons and ammunition, making plans that often include casing the location and rehearsing the planned attack and expressing an unusual interest or preoccupation with violent assaults in the media or historical events, typically in written essays or emails, Facebook postings and blogs. Often the individual tells someone of his/her plans or enough of the plans that logically give warning of the attack. Along with these planning behaviors, the individual may demonstrate difficulty coping with significant losses or failures and be socially isolated, a loner and at-risk for suicide.

Most people are blessed with some level of intuition and awareness when something just isn’t right. Often we dismiss this because we aren’t sure what to do. But this type of wanton violence has happened too many times in Colorado. We need to be more aware and smarter about these warning signs and the importance of reporting them.

Safe2Tell provides an anonymous and safe way to report when the witness does not wish to be identified. Safe2Tell reports are forwarded to local law enforcement and responders for follow-up. Safe2Tell gives everyone in the community a chance to play a role in the prevention of another violent act, to be a lifesaver.

Contacting local officials or Safe2Tell with concerns is critical to preventing violence. Yet there is much more that we can do to prevent individuals from engaging in violence in the first place. We have learned that the best violence prevention should begin before kids are born and continue through their childhood and adolescent development. There are tested and effective programs to prevent violence but seldom are they fully funded or well implemented.

Let us commit to changing this and putting what we know works into action. Then we can make Colorado known for being a leader in preventing violence.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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