State Input Missing From White House Youth Violence Summit
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
WASHINGTON - Spurred by the massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School, President Clinton brought Cabinet members, parents, students, entertainment world luminaries like singer Gloria Estefan and gun manufacturers' representatives to the White House this week for a closed-door gabfest on the problem of youth violence.
News reports before and after the session noted the absence of top officials of the National Rifle Association, an arch-foe of gun control. But the White House also failed to invite any governors or state legislators, who are arguably on the frontlines of the battle to stop school shootings.
Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar and Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton were the only state or local representatives on the 56-person list of participants, which also included religious leaders, foundation officials and members of Congress.
"I don't know where the communication is between state legislatures and the White House on this we've been left out of the loop," said Mary Fairchild, the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) expert on youth violence issues.
Fairchild said state legislatures have taken a very active role in trying to curb school violence, and that NCSL has held a number of conferences on the issue.
Noel Milan, a spokesman for the National Governors' Association (NGA), said the issue is of paramount concern to "state and local leaders everywhere." NGA has held one meeting and plans another on what works in combating school violence, he said.
White House spokesman Barry Toiv said meeting organizers faced a real struggle in keeping the guest list from becoming too unwieldy, and pointed out the presence of a top official from Colorado, a state "dramatically affected by this problem."
"We certainly are aware of the need to have state government represented, and we are aware of the critical role state government plays on this issue," Toiv said.
The federal government contributes only about six percent of the more than $300 billion that this country spends on public schools each year.
Although no concrete proposals emerged from the three-hour White House discussion, Clinton committed his administration to lead a national grass roots campaign against school violence. The new initiative would be modeled on the White House campaign against teen pregnancy.
Clinton also said that school violence is a complicated problem with no one factor at fault. "No one pointed the finger of blame," he said.
Speaking in the Rose Garden after the meeting. Clinton said "every parent, every teacher, every leader has something more to do."
The White House wants to raise the minimum age on hand gun purchases from 18 to 21, require background checks at gun shows and prohibit youths with a violent crime on their record from purchasing guns. But even before Clinton convened his much-heralded "White House Strategy Session on Children, Violence and Responsibility," state policy makers were trying to deal with the issue.
NCSL's Fairchild suggested that the federal government could learn from the states, saying California has been a national leader in developing programs and interventions to prevent youth violence.
California has enacted an array of laws that do everything from establishing at-risk early intervention programs for youths and families with chronic behavior problems to establishing after school and safe neighborhood programs for kindergarten through sixth grade students.
At a time when improving public education is uppermost in the minds of the voters throughout the country, state leaders everywhere are scrambling to head off a repeat of what happened at Columbine High School. Some examples:
- North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt is offering rewards of up to $10,000 each for information that leads to the conviction of anyone who makes threats against a school or students. This is in addition to a State Board of Education program that has awards of up to $15,000 to deal with warnings of violence. Since the April 20 school shooting in Colorado, North Carolina has had 39 reported bomb threats in state schools.
- Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore has announced a similar program. In addition to a toll-free statewide hotline, Gilmore said a "Partnership for School Safety," a joint venture between Bell Atlantic of Virginia, GTE of Virginia, the Virginia Information Providers network and the Commonwealth, will set up an Internet site for online school crime reporting. The state also set aside $1.5 million for additional school resource officers.
- A legislative leader in Wisconsin is pushing a Safety and Accountability for Education (SAFE) package, which develops local school safety councils, monitors violent incidents and shares information among school districts. A statehouse rally in support of the initiative clashed with efforts by the NRA to garner support for a bill that would make it illegal for cities to sue gun manufacturers. "What we need to be doing right now is passing laws that protect kids, not gun makers," Democratic state Rep. David Cullen said.
- In Massachusetts, Boston public schools are setting up an anonymous tip line for students, parents or teachers to report threats. Confidential hot lines have been established in rural and urban schools for nearly five years.
- A spokesman for Georgia's public schools, where a hotline is also in place, said the tip line usually gets three or four calls a day, but after Littleton it shot up to 25 a day. A Wisconsin school district has a phone number that disguises the voice of the caller, and another district is trying to assign PIN numbers to provide a cash award to callers in case their tip leads to an arrest.
- Maine's state senate gave the green light to a bill this week that spells out new standards for classroom behavior and punishments for disobedient students.
- And in Delaware, Gov. Tom Carper moved to close a loophole that currently waives regulations on private handgun sales and transfers. He wants mandatory background checks on all handgun sales and transfers for both new or used guns. Carper also proposed a $5 million increase for prevention, intervention and school discipline programs a 50 percent increase. Almost half of the money will go to help students who need academic or behavior counseling.
"We want to help local school officials send a clear message that communicating threats and other behavior that disrupts schools must stop," State Superintendent Mike Ward said of North Carolina's reward program. "Schools are safe places, but learning cannot take place when children and their teachers are constantly being upset by bombs and other threats."
Gov. Hunt has also announced the formation of a task force on youth violence and community safety. Participants will be similar to those invited to the White House, including law enforcement professionals, educators, parents and experts. He has asked the task force to prepare a report showing what school violence prevention programs have been successful.