Just hours after a 13-year-old Missouri boy fired an assault rifle at his school – and in the wake of four recent fatal school shootings in rural America – President Bush and national experts vetted plans to make schools "gentle places of learning."
But, unlike comparable panels after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, proposed strategies did not include curbing access to guns.
Instead, Tuesday's presidential conference on school safety in Chevy Chase, Md., focused on the human face of the solution: getting "stakeholders" – students, school officials, parents, and police – working together, practicing school crisis plans as regularly as fire drills, and, most critically, identifying students who need help before they pick up a gun.
That means taking bullying seriously, encouraging students to tell an adult when they hear classmates threaten to harm themselves or others, and identifying "students of interest" (taking care not to label a child a troublemaker) and getting them help.
Since more than 3 in 4 shooters talk in advance about their plans, the goal is to get better intelligence, experts say. That means getting police into classrooms, even at elementary schools. "Our first line of prevention is really having good intelligence," said Delbert Elliott, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence in Boulder, Colo., who urged monitoring children for agitation and aggression.
Other panelists came fresh from their own bouts with school violence. Sheriff Fred Wegener of Bailey, Colo., talked about how recent emergency drills helped his officers "go to the threat," pin down the man with the gun, then evacuate students, after a call came on Sept. 27 that an outsider had taken hostages at the Platte Canyon High School. In the end, the gunman killed himself and a hostage, but was not able to fire into large groups of students.
Although gun control was not on the agenda, it did come up when panelists opened the session to questions. "Obviously, kids should not have access to weapons," said Theo Milonopoulos, a sophomore at Stanford University who with his twin brother, Nico, is a cofounder of Vox Populi and Kidz-LA. The two groups encourage youth to combat violence by engaging in the legislative process.
Sheriff Wegener of Bailey responded that he had a rifle in the bed of his pickup truck when he went to school, but "never thought about shooting anybody with it." He added: "We have to change society."
In an interview after the conference, Mr. Milonopoulos voiced his dissatisfaction: "I'm grateful to the Bush administration for bringing these issues to light through a national conference, and inviting a wide variety of groups, but there needs to be a new approach beyond the dialogue that we heard [on Tuesday]. The first thing I would do is renew the federal assault weapons ban." After the Columbine shootings in Littleton, Colo., school-safety experts called for metal detectors to keep weapons out of schools, surveillance cameras, improved school design to reduce potential hiding places – and new laws to curb access to guns.
While the event was open to the press, it was closed to the general public. Gun-control advocates say they were shut out of the conference, but not the larger fight over how to make society safer.
"The fact that the president doesn't want to address this issue and the Republican Congress is moving in the wrong direction doesn't mean that the issue has been taken off the table," says Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, citing the 109th Congress's failure to renew the assault weapons ban and a recent House bill that makes it more difficult to curb corrupt gun dealers. Recently, more than 100 mayors have organized to press for curbs on interstate gun trafficking, he notes.
Still, school-safety experts say that experience with threat assessment is beginning to pay off. Art Kelly, police chief of New Bedford, Mass., told the conference that he used information provided by the Secret Service to prevent a school shooting from being committed.
"Generally, generally, America's schools are safe places to be," said Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, one of the speakers. "Your kids are much more likely to be safer in school than they are at the mall. And that's the good news. We are, however, seeing some indications in the last two years that those trends are changing."
But finding the money to pay for all the upgrades needed to keep schools safer is a challenge. In a statement this week, the Democratic National Committee noted that the Bush administration has cut funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services program from $160 million in the last two years of the Clinton administration to $5 million in 2005. In 2006, the program was zeroed out.