School violence can be prevented, University of Colorado expert says

The tragic school shooting that occurred Feb. 27 at a suburban Cleveland high school is another reminder that communities can and must take action to prevent school violence, according to Delbert Elliott, a nationally renowned authority on school safety and juvenile violence at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“A key prevention strategy is good surveillance and good intelligence,” said Elliott, founding director of the CU-Boulder Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.  “We need to enlist our students, our teachers and our adults in the community to help us and ask them to notify the police or the sheriff if they see something unusual or have heard that something is about to happen.”

In 80 percent of the school shootings examined by the U.S. Secret Service, someone knew the event was going to take place, Elliott said.  “Nationally, we know right now of a dozen or more events for which we got a tip and were able to intervene early so the planned event actually never took place, which is, I think, our very, very best security.”  Some of these plans were on the same level of violence as the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, he said.

In Colorado, there’s a toll-free Safe2Tell reporting system for students and others to call in anonymous tips about safety concerns, the result of collaboration between the CU-Boulder center and the Colorado Attorney General’s office. All tips are treated seriously, and when combined with other sources of information, often result in some kind of intervention.  Since 2004, Safe2Tell has received almost 10,000 calls. 

From 2004 through 2010, follow-up data indicate that 83 percent of all Safe2Tell incidents resulted in a positive intervention or action. These tips resulted in 415 formal investigations, 359 counseling referrals, 298 prevention/intervention plans, 324 potential suicide interventions, 312 school disciplinary actions, 74 arrests and 28 prevented school attacks.

“An equally critical key to security is to create a welcoming environment in which all students feel that they’re respected, that the rules are applied uniformly to all students, and students feel safe,” Elliott said.  “When students feel that some children can get away with bad behavior and others can’t, and there’s bullying going on, that’s when kids feel like they have to take a weapon to school to protect themselves.”

After Columbine raised awareness of the need to prepare for school crises, school safety has improved nationally, Elliott said.  In Colorado, the Legislature changed the law to allow schools, law enforcement and social services agencies to legally share information and every school in the state is now required to have a bullying prevention plan.

Any parent in the state can now go into their child’s school and ask to see what the bullying prevention plan is for that school and make sure that the school is following through with it, he said.

Every school, even those in rural areas, needs an “all-hazards” approach to crises that works for a variety of threats: fires, natural hazards, terrorist attacks, chemical spills, a shooter in the building or a hostage takeover, Elliott said.  But most schools haven’t practiced these plans with a full response by police, SWAT, fire, victims’ services, mental health services and ambulances -- all coordinated by a single command post.

As the responses to both Columbine and Sept. 11 showed, such drills are important because they reveal communications and other crucial response issues between agencies, he said.  Such practices could be held on weekends without students being present, he noted.

Elliott also is concerned when school officials tell him that school safety is a lower priority for them than academic performance, that there is no space in their curriculum for an anti-bullying program.

“These two things should not be in competition with each other,” he said.  “If you’ve got a problem with students feeling unsafe at school, you’re not going to improve academic performance because school safety is a necessary precondition for students to be able to concentrate and even to be willing to come to school.

“We argue that being safe at school and improving academic performance go hand in hand.”

Six percent of schoolchildren reported that they had not come to school on occasion because they were afraid of being threatened or assaulted according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control survey, Elliott said.

“Nevertheless, students are more likely to be a victim of violence away from school than at school by a huge margin,” said Elliott, who was the senior scientific editor of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Youth Violence issued in 2001.

The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence is part of the CU-Boulder Institute of Behavioral Science.  For more information about the center visit To use the Safe2Tell reporting system call 877-542-7233. 

Beverly Kingston, CSPV director, 303-492-9046
Delbert Elliott, CSPV founding director, 303-492-1032
Peter Caughey, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-492-4007