Following the recent rash of fatal shootings in schools, the Bush administration scrambled to protect youth from more violence last month by mobilizing its forces to hold a public meeting.
The Conference on School Safety was slammed together in about 48 hours, with invitations initially going out to select people, and gradually widening to include just about anyone who was free to help make the meeting room – on the leafy grounds of the National 4-H Conference Center just outside Washington – look crowded for the TV cameras.
Among the youth-focused organizations represented in the audience in Chevy Chase, Md.: Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, the Child Welfare League of America, Youth Crime Watch of America and America’s Promise. About 350 people, drafted by e-mails blasting around the capital, crowded into what looked like a college lecture hall.
Any youth-focused event that features the president and the first lady (who hosted her own conference about youth last year) is bound to be hijacked by some self-serving rhetoric and happy talk, and this one did not disappoint on that count. Nevertheless, the dialogue offered some insight on how the administration and its allies in youth policy want to approach the problem of school shootings.
Not Invited: Gun Talk
It was impossible not to notice that a daylong summit that was called because of shootings barely mentioned shooting. One youth in the audience – Niko Milonopoulos, the 19-year-old founder of the anti-gun violence campaign Kidz Voice-L.A. – observed that the use of guns was the “common denominator in the rash of school shootings.”
“Assault weapons,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales replied. “Obviously, kids shouldn’t have access to weapons.” But, they do.
The silence on the issue prompted Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center (not invited to the event), to ask, “How is it even possible to have a discussion about preventing school shootings without talking about guns?”
The Problem: Kids
In September, a high schooler in Cazenovia, Wis., shot and killed his principal, and in Joplin, Mo., 13-year-old took a gun to his middle school and accidentally shot the ceiling. The other recent school shootings that made national headlines – in Bailey, Colo., and Nickel Mines, Pa. – claimed at least six lives and were committed by adults.
Also worth mentioning: Reported violent crime victimization at schools dropped from 48 per 1,000 in 1992 to 28 per 1,000 in 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Yet the conference talk focused on how to stop kids from wanting to hurt people. What schools need, some panelists said, are quality character education programs, such as PeaceBuilders, run by conference attendee Michelle Molina; or Rachel’s Challenge, run by Daryl Scott, father of Columbine High School victim Rachel Scott, whose brother Craig attended the conference.
One panelist, University of Connecticut professor George Sugai, said, “Academic success might be our greatest buffer” in preventing violent behavior.
Don’t be so sure. A 2001 report by the Secret Service, “Final Report and Findings of the Safe Schools Initiative,” found that 41 percent of attackers in school shootings generally received As and Bs, and that some had taken Advanced Placement courses.
Invitations initially went out to staunch administration supporters. But because the conference was a last-minute affair, the White House turned to the National Human Services Assembly to help fill empty seats with its members. Let’s acknowledge that if the National Assembly membership formed a state, it would be as blue as a clear sky.
But if anyone wanted to slam the president at his own event, he didn’t make it to the microphone. Instead, speaker after speaker stepped up to thank the administration for hosting the event, before breaking into three-minute spiels about their own work.
Bush set the feel-good mood, dropping at least four of his bring-the-house-down deadpans. New Bedford, Mass., Police Chief Art Kelly told the president about using information from the Secret Service report in a school violence case. “I like the Secret Service too, Art,” the president joked, drawing laughter and a round of applause.
For those on the lookout for Bushisms, the president mildly complied. He kicked off his speech by calling for best practices in preventing “inexplissable” violence. The White House transcriber wrote “inexplicable.”
Money Talk – Not Here
“Let me put the funding issue right on the table: The federal government is a limited funder of education,” Bush told the audience. “And I happen to believe that’s the way it should be. I don’t think it’s possible for the people to have expectations that the [federal] government should fund public schools. This is a local responsibility.”
Don’t think Bush isn’t afraid to back up those words. Funding for COPS in Schools, part of the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services program, declined from $180.6 million in fiscal 2002 to $5.4 million in 2005. Funding for School Resource Officers (SROs) went from $118 million in 2004 to $10 million in 2005, with the program zeroed out in 2006.
“It’s great to have the opportunity to marshal the best information we have and then follow that up with resources (read: more money) to implement what makes schools safer,” Miriam Rollin, vice president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, said after the event.
“Unfortunately, it was made very clear that there wouldn’t be any talk about funding.”
People at Washington conferences often seize on one concept as the nugget to focus on, and on this day it was this finding from the Secret Service report: In 81 percent of school shootings, at least one uninvolved student had previous knowledge of the attack.
Thus the prominent finding discussed at a White House conference that was called because of shootings by adults was data about shootings by youth that the White House received five years ago. The report is available on line at www.secretservice.gov/ntac_ssi.shtml.
Several organizations have set up tip lines and websites to facilitate reporting of potential school violence. They include www.Report-it.com, which partners with the Hamilton Fish Institute and allows schools to provide phone and website hotlines for students. The site has about 150 schools registered and receives almost 200 reports of potential violence each year, according to Report-it.com CEO Anthony LaValle.
Young People Get Noticed
Old fogies get up and yammer about the dangers of video games and movies and music all the time; it’s called Congress. But 23-year-old Craig Scott lost his sister Rachel at Columbine seven years ago, and watched two friends die that day as well. He travels, gives speeches and talks to kids around the country as part of his work for Rachel’s Challenge.
When he says media influence is a problem, and more character education is needed, it’s hard to pass it off as an unfounded political stand.
“I see a lot of depression, a lot of anger” among youth, Scott said on one panel.
Sounding older than his age, Scott bemoaned the purveyance of violent behavior in music and movies, as well as the country’s departure from the education system of early America, which placed character above academics on its list of priorities. “Youth are crying for something to stand for, something to believe in,” Scott told the president. “Kindness and compassion can be the antidotes” to the kind of rage that fuels violence.
Also getting a lot of attention was panelist Chiarasay Perkins, a Youth Crime Watch youth leader from DeFuniak Springs, Fla.
She spoke about the warning signs of depression in youth.