By Published: Nov. 7, 2022

Photo: Visitors file by the inscribed plaques on the outer circle of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park. Credit: Glenn Asakawa

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.

Meanwhile, other types of violence, including bullying and youth gun violence, are also on the rise, as lingering post-pandemic mental health issues stress already under-resourced school systems.

With a new $2 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV) at CU Boulder aims to help 40 Colorado schools get a handle on the crisis, by tackling the social and cultural roots of violence, long before anyone gets hurt.

The new grant is the latest of $100 million in anti-violence grants the research center has received in its history. It celebrates its 30-year anniversary this month.

“We’re hearing from many different schools and seasoned school safety practitioners that this is one of the hardest years they have ever experienced,” said CSPV Director Beverly Kingston. “These kids have missed a lot of school at really critical developmental times, and the mental health needs are unprecedented. Yet a lot of schools are having a hard time finding staff, much less worrying about school safety.”

The 3-year STOP School Violence Grant will allow the center to help 40 schools implement its Safe Communities Safe Schools (SCSS) program, a research-based initiative launched shortly after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.

While discussions after a school shooting tragedy often center around gun policy or law enforcement response, the program takes a quieter approach, focusing on upstream solutions to prevent and avert violence.

Among other things, it helps K-12 schools to assess and improve their mental health climate, be sure they have a system in place for students and teachers to report when someone is struggling and establish systems to assure those reports are acted upon.

“We’re basically taking all that we know from decades of research to be effective and providing it to schools to help them be safer,” said Kingston.

Student and staff surveys are used to determine things like: how prevalent bullying is; how common depression and anxiety are; whether the school has mental health resources in place and students know how to access them; and whether the school has or publicizes a bystander reporting system.

Then program administrators help the school put together an action plan to emphasize their strong points and strengthen weak ones. They also provide training and some technical assistance.

“We would never approach a school and say, ‘this is what you need to do’,” said Amanda Matthews, implementation manager for the program. “This is a collaborative effort where schools are in the driver’s seat.”

Using previous grants, SCSS has already helped hundreds of schools, documenting what they learned from 46 of them in a recent research paper.

Beverly Kingston

Beverly Kingston

At one school, Matthews recalls, student surveys revealed the school had a serious bullying problem. SCSS connected them with a bullying prevention program which, according to follow-up data, made a huge difference in the school climate.

In another instance, the school realized that staff didn’t know what to do if they noticed that a youth was in crisis.

“Staff would stop the counselor in the hallway or send an email or text asking them to check on a student. There was no consistency once they referred a student so there was a lack of confidence in the system,” said Matthews.

Using the SCSS model, the team was able to establish a system and processes for managing mental health referrals.

At schools that lack staffing or resources to address school safety, the program helps them identify steps they can take with the resources they have, or secure funding to do more.

“Schools have so many competing priorities and so little time,” said Matthews. “What we can do is come in and provide time and space and training so they can have these intentional conversations.”

In recent months the center has also received a $6 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control to address youth community violence and a $1.2 million grant to boost education and awareness around violence on the CU Boulder campus.

“Violence may be increasing but we have solutions,” said Kingston. “These projects are about us coming together to implement a comprehensive public health approach and to stand bigger than violence.”

Schools wishing to apply for assistance through the grant can email Jody Witt.