Editor's note: This was written and published shortly before a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas killing 19 children and two adults on Tuesday, May 24th, 2022.
In the time since a gunman killed 10 people inside a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, it’s becoming clear that the suspect left warning signs about his attack, which is being investigated as a hate crime due to his racist online writings. His actions and words raised red flags in school and in online communities, but no one intervened to help prevent the attack.
Colorado is a hotbed for research and developing strategies to help prevent bias-motivated crimes, and experts here have ideas about what people can do in their daily lives to help stop attacks like the one in Buffalo, or a similar one in an El Paso Walmart in 2019, which targeted Latinos. It’s not just mass murder making this prevention work urgent right now: The Anti-Defamation League has noted 204 instances of white supremacist propaganda and incidents in Colorado in 2021 and 2022.
Psychologist Rachel Nielsen spoke with Colorado Matters about strategies for prevention. She is working on a project to fight targeted violence, which will roll out training for K-12 schools and colleges and universities starting in July. The project is in partnership with two groups born out of the Columbine massacre – the Frank DeAngelis Center and Nicoletti-Flater Associates – and it’s funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
How can we stop hateful ideologies from taking root?
The educational culture and the values of a school have a lot to do with mitigating these things early on in life, because freedom of speech goes so far in the U.S. A lot of hate speech falls under freedom of speech. So it comes down to our communities, our schools, and our faith organizations to draw the line about what we find culturally and socially acceptable way before it's something criminal.
In mission statements and value statements of school, for example, is it written in school policy that it's unacceptable and there are consequences for saying something racist to a peer? It really does come down to everyone taking up the charge and pushing for a positive, diverse, inclusive environment at schools.
How can an inclusive message be taught when prominent figures, including Congresswoman Lauren Boebert in Colorado, promote racist ideas like “replacement theory”?
I don't think it's ever too late, but these things do ebb and flow in our country. In recent years, we definitely have seen more racist attacks in the name of white supremacy or alt-right rhetoric. It is becoming mainstream.
That's part of the problem for young people, because their critical thinking is still developing. They're not sure where to get correct information. When they hear disinformation or misinformation come from people in power, like politicians, a vulnerable young person might be more likely to believe that this is the case, and then that becomes fuel on the fire for someone who's already angry, has a sense of personal grievance, and then latches onto a hate ideology.
Many people will espouse hate beliefs and not violently attack another individual. But when that voice becomes more of a mainstream opinion, then you can have people who are vulnerable to this pathway to violence who are more emboldened, because it is more familiar and common.
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What should I look out for in terms of red flags before someone potentially becomes violent?
Usually we notice that our loved ones are changing in some way. What we found in bystander research is that friends and family have the greatest influence and the greatest opportunity to catch it early, well before it would come onto the radar of a professional, like a mental health counselor or an educator. So we encourage that when somebody starts – for the first time – saying things about violence or hate, or suggesting that that's the answer to social or political issues, that we confront that by having a conversation and not shying away from it.
How should I have that conversation?
Social media can be one of the worst places to have a conversation about ideologies, because it easily becomes divisive. A face-to-face conversation would be best, since there can be some dialogue.
If someone says something that I have never heard them say before, like something racist, as uncomfortable as that would be, I would want to say, “I've never heard you talk like that. Why are these things appealing to you? What's changed with you?” Actually express concern about them, that something is off and they're becoming angry and blaming people, which is really a warning sign.
If, instead, you come with the opposite opinion, or try to use facts to dispute someone’s beliefs, sometimes it ends up having the effect of making you impossible to talk to. They think you're the “other,” or shaming them, and they will pull away, and then maybe they won’t express these things to you, but they can continue to get more strident.
What if I’m worried about getting someone in trouble by calling the police?
There's federal research that found that in any given attack, there are three people, usually friends and family, who had real information about what their loved one was going to do, but they probably didn't know what to do with it.
The top reason that people don't report the information is that they're afraid to get their loved one in trouble and they don't want to overreact, or for the loved one to get mad at them. This is especially true with teens and young people; they don't want to get their friend in trouble, or they don't want to get in trouble with them.
Luckily, in Colorado we have Safe2Tell. That works well for these kinds of concerns, about a kid who may have a gun on campus or has insinuated that they will hurt somebody. But the problem is, very much like what happened in Buffalo and even at the King Soopers in Boulder in 2021, once these kids graduate from high school, they don't necessarily fall on anyone's radar.
Are there times when intervention has really worked?
This is really where Colorado excels. Ever since the Columbine massacre in 1999, with the creation of things like Safe2Tell, along with collaboration between mental health and law enforcement for people in crisis, we are very quick at thwarting attacks when there's evidence of a plan, a target, weapons – but those are all right on that edge of attack, and sometimes that's just within days or hours of something happening.
We have thousands of calls that go through Safe2Tell in a given year, and you don't hear about all of the suicides and guns on campus and attacks that were thwarted because it's their private business.
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