By Published: March 1, 2018

Beverly Kingston

Beverly Kingston (PhDSoc’05) directs CU Boulder’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV). Here she discusses preventive measures for children and mass shootings, and what needs to be done for the violence to end.

Do you define violence the way the rest of us do?

I use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of violence, which says youth violence occurs when young people between the ages of 10 and 24 intentionally use physical force or power to threaten or harm others. At our center, we don’t only focus on violence. We also look at anything that gets in the way of positive, healthy youth development.

What attributes do violent people tend to share?

We talk about risk and protection factors, similar to risk factors for cancer or heart disease. The more risk factors you have, such as a teenager engaging with delinquent peers or weak prosocial ties, and the fewer protective factors you have, such as supportive parents, the higher the likelihood of problems and violent behaviors.

America seems especially violent. Why?

We’re not systematically addressing the underlying root causes of violence. We need to put resources into supporting the healthy development of our kids, our schools and our communities.

What can we do about mass shootings?

I use the tip of the iceberg analogy. At the tip are the shootings — what make the news. We were called quite a bit after Las Vegas, and what we say is, ‘You’ve got to look underneath.’ We know 20 to 25 percent of middle school students report being bullied in the past 30 days. Eighteen percent of our high school kids have seriously considered suicide in the past year. In middle school, it’s about the same. Twenty-three percent of high school students reported being in a physical fight in the past year at school.

There’s a lot of hurting kids, and a lot of lower levels of violence going on. Mass shootings are going to keep happening if we don’t take a comprehensive public health approach to addressing youth violence and these sufferings of our children. The good news is we know a lot about what works to prevent violence. If we were able to put into place what works, we could reduce violence by 30 percent.

Your work focuses on violence prevention in young people. Why’s that?

The best violence prevention begins early and continues through childhood and adolescence — we’ve tested effective programs to prevent violence throughout the life course. We also have intervention programs for those youth already engaged in violent behaviors that can substantially reduce the likelihood of serious violence and offer enormous cost savings to society.

What do you make of the way we talk about violence in the U.S.?

We’ve talked about violence in a limited way over time. If we were actually to put in place the key aspects of what makes nurturing environments, we’d be taking action to reduce violence. We also need to have public conversations about how racial disparities have affected the social determinants of health and how those factors have impacted violence.

When confronted with violence, how should a person react?

What we’ve known since Columbine and these mass shootings is a lot of people have information about the shooter. They saw red flags and warning signs, but didn’t know what to do with them. In Colorado, we have Safe2Tell, an anonymous bystander reporting system answered by the Colorado State Patrol. They follow up on every report. Many incidents in our state have been prevented by taking that positive action.

Given your subject of study, how do you avoid feeling sad, overwhelmed or scared?

I can get discouraged because these shootings keep happening and we keep repeating the same information over and over again with little sustained change. But I get really excited and hopeful because we do know so much about how to prevent violence. After the Newtown shooting, I was new to my job and I reviewed the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Youth Violence to prepare for talking to the media. I was shocked to see that in the intro of the report, it said we have everything we need to know right now to prevent violence. I wonder what it is going to take to act on what we have.

I have a friend who works with victims. Her three-year-old son was killed in the ’90s in a drive-by shooting in Northeast Park Hill. She said one of the things she started asking herself afterward was, ‘What were the kids who shot my son not getting, and how can we give it to them?’ That drives me.


Condensed and edited.

Photo by Glenn Asakawa