After Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 students and administrators in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday with an AR-15 assault rifle, President Trump responded with a tweet. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem,” Trump wrote. “Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again.” The missive was, as Trump messages generally are, pilloried by pundits for its victim-blaming tactlessness. But, setting aside context for a moment, the sentiment was correct.
“That’s one of his better tweets,” William Woodward, who works with University of Colorado, Boulder’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, told Fatherly. “I’m happy to hear it.”
A Twitter mob descended on Trump, and Parkland’s indignant mayor responded to the president, who ended a ban on gun sales to the mentally ill in 2017, that “if a solution was simple for these things, we’d have found one already.” But Woodward, who is not a Trump supporter, approved. Why? Because he knows that gun sale restrictions and increased mental health spending are, unfortunately for children, pipe dreams given America’s current political climate. They might work at some point in the future, but the death toll will keep creeping up in the meantime. Strategically speaking, Woodward believes that the best way for students and teachers to protect themselves is to bring open lines of communication to a gunfight.
It’s easy to take issue with this prescription because it is a practical, not political measure. The sports-ish publication Deadspin characterized Trump’s tweet as a call to “Call The Cops On Troubled Kids More.” And given the number of black children killed by police, there are some problematic racial issues that can’t be ignored. That said, avoiding being problematic isn’t the point. The point is keeping children alive.
Woodward knows this and he knows that it can work because it has. The important thing is to answer the question that a lot of people asked in the wake of the President’s tweet: Which authorities? Who? In Colorado, that’s not an abstract query. The state’s anonymous Safe2Tell program was designed to make reporting simple in order to stop the next Columbine.
“We have an anonymous tip line in Colorado,” Woodward says. “You phone-in, text-in, or send pictures or video. Then Safe2Tell begins forming a threat assessment committee, which makes decisions about how to manage that particular threat.”
Here’s how it works: When a tip is received, a panel of experts work alongside law enforcement and mental health professionals to address the situation before it spirals out of control. The key point being that there are different stakeholders and actual mental health experts involved. And, yes, there are success stories. They read like hopeful counterfactuals.
“Multiple tips were received from students concerning a planned school attack…by a high school student who was making statements of his plan to kill others,” says to one Safe2Tell report, which describes how a potential school shooting was averted. “School Resource Officer, school counselor, and dean of students met with the student. Parents were contacted and advised of the situation. Student saw outside therapist and was later admitted to the psychiatric hospital.”
Initial reports from Parkland suggest that many students and teachers suspected Cruz and reported him to various people, including police, long before he opened fire. They may not have reported him to the correct authority or, and this is a very real possibility, there may not have been a correct authority. ( In his study of school shootings, Woodward has found that teachers often fail to share crucial information with the authorities out of misplaced fear of violating privacy laws.) Colorado doesn’t have that problem and, as Woodward is quick to point out, there’s no reason any other state should either. The hotline approach works and can help kids understand the difference between snitching and saving lives.
Our kids won’t use our tip line unless they’re trained—when is it OK to tell, and when does telling turn into ratting them out” Woodward. “We have to tell kids it’s OK to tell when someone’s life is at stake.”
So a cultural change is needed as well. The president’s perhaps ill-timed message needs to be repeated ad nauseum so that kids understand and adults put together the necessary reporting structures. The worst-case scenario, Woodward points out, is everyone knowing and no one feeling that it is their responsibility to report or help a kid with proclivities toward violence.
Had Cruz attended high school in Colorado, Woodward says, it is doubtful that Safe2Tell would have directed him toward mental health counseling. Instead, Woodward suspects administrators would have coordinated with police to ensure that Cruz was never left unattended on school grounds. This form of intervention — externally controlling behavior — is difficult, but it absolutely works.
Woodward insists that stopping school shootings and stopping the next school shootings are two different issues. He insists this because he’s cynical about congress or the president taking legislative action. He’s been too close to the issue to believe that is a reasonable expectation. But he’s also been close enough to the issue to know that there are other solutions, ones that may not be morally acceptable over the long term, but save lives in the short term.
“There’s a lot we can still do,” he says. “We should be upstream on every one of these kids.”