I was brand new to my position as director of the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence when 20 children and six adults tragically lost their lives ten years ago this week in the Sandy Hook school attack.
Given the magnitude and devastation of the tragedy, I believed that surely our nation would mobilize to implement scientifically informed actions that could reduce mass violence.
I was wrong.
The tragedy of mass violence persists, and sadly the numbers keep growing. School shootings have already reached a record single-year high in 2022, with 40 in the United States as of Oct. 30, killing 34 people and injuring 88.
Shortly after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, our center launched a research-based initiative called Safe Communities Safe Schools to support school and district teams in implementing a comprehensive approach to school safety.
Recently, we partnered with the National Association of School Resource Officers and other school safety experts to develop Project Unite, a training program for multidisciplinary school safety teams to implement integrated school violence prevention strategies. The best violence prevention begins early and continues through childhood and adolescence, and we have a registry of experimentally proven programs to prevent violence throughout life.
We estimate if we could put these programs, practices, and integrated systems into place to scale, we could substantially reduce the likelihood of serious violence and offer enormous cost savings to society.
However, these efforts are currently not well-funded nor widely implemented. The majority of tax dollars spent go to policing, incarceration, and reactive strategies rather than to preventing the problem from happening in the first place.
When we study the events and circumstances leading up to school shootings, we repeatedly find the same patterns.
People knew something was wrong with the person prior to their attack, but they did not know who to tell, how to tell them, or how to intervene. In these retrospective studies, we find many missed opportunities to address the warning signs in the shooter. In our study of the Arapahoe Shooting in Colorado in 2013, we identified 27 missed opportunities to intervene, and in the Parkland Shooting, there were at least 69 missed opportunities.
A key violence prevention strategy focuses on developing integrated systems to identify and address behavioral warning signs for violence. These systems include bystander reporting and response, information sharing, behavioral threat and suicide risk assessment and management, and coordinated school- and community-based mental health services.
We also know that building a positive culture and climate in our schools and communities is foundational for effective violence prevention. For example, a positive school climate benefits individual students and the overall school environment by fostering relationships that promote healthy youth development, prevent problem behavior and encourage bystander reporting. In these environments, trusting, respectful, and caring relationships are prioritized; youth and adults care about and watch out for each other, and exclusionary discipline practices are reduced.
Admittedly, the availability of firearms is a key societal factor that accounts for high homicide rates in the U.S. compared to other western countries. Yet, the sole focus on firearm access leads us to ignore other violence prevention solutions.
The solutions we collectively advocate for are part of a comprehensive public health approach that addresses the root causes that fuel violence. This approach includes upstream prevention strategies that promote safety and well-being for everyone and interventions to support those that are at risk for violence or exhibiting violent behaviors.
It is easy to feel powerless in the face of the horror of mass shootings. But we know what works. We know how to address this problem. It’s time to act.
Beverly Kingston, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder.
To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit online or check out our guidelines for how to submit by email or mail.