Conference Addresses School Shootings

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

President Bush said at a conference of school officials, police officers and youth advocates yesterday that communities need a list of "best practices" to prevent and respond to the kinds of school attacks that have occurred in recent weeks.

"In many ways, I'm sorry we're having this meeting," Bush told about 350 people at the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase. "In other ways, we know how important it is that we're having this meeting."

Bush said he was "troubled" by the recent school shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. "All of us in this country want our classrooms to be gentle places for learning," he said.

His remarks wrapped up the six-hour Conference on School Safety, hastily arranged last week by the White House, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education after five girls were killed and five were wounded at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. The president announced no new funding or policy initiatives to handle the problem but said he wanted the conference to reveal "concrete actions to help people understand what's possible and what's working."

"It seems to me, a lot of our attention should be on preventing" such incidents, Bush said. That would require "a mosaic of programs," he said, such as better training for school officials to spot the warning signs of a student bent on violence.

Bush spoke while seated onstage at a U-shaped table with a Florida sheriff, a Los Angeles specialist in school crisis counseling, a survivor of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School and the Fairfax County school system's director of safety and security.

The president heard calls for more coordinated planning between schools and police, more character education, more peer mentoring programs, more parental involvement and more counseling for suicidal children who might also have homicidal tendencies. Adding metal detectors and more security cameras can create a "lockdown" atmosphere and make the school less hospitable, several panelists said.

Frederick E. Ellis, head of safety and security for Fairfax schools, said safety plans need to be updated frequently and practiced. Fairfax schools fine-tuned their security plans after the Columbine shootings in Colorado, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the anthrax mail attacks and the Washington-area sniper shootings, he said.

For example, the system created a plan to shelter in place in response to an attack rather than automatically evacuate.

"We tell [school officials] you can't learn to dance the night of the ball," Ellis said. "It's too late."

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called Fairfax schools a national model for security planning.

In a room full of national experts dressed in conservative suits and police uniforms, it was a 23-year-old Colorado man in a brown leather jacket who received the standing ovation. Craig Scott described how two friends were shot to death next to him under a table in the Columbine High School library. His older sister, Rachel, then 17, was also killed.

Scott now tours the country as part of Rachel's Challenge, a program that urges teenagers to show more kindness and compassion and avoid violent music and video games.

"I've seen depression and a lot of loneliness and anger" among teenagers, Scott said. "Incorporating character back into the education system is something my generation is desperately crying out for."

The conference about school violence began with a national expert saying that schools are still among the safest places. Children ages 12 to 18 are far more likely to be killed or seriously assaulted outside school, said Delbert S. Elliott, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado.

Although high-profile attacks are relatively rare, he said, statistics show that "everyday violence," such as fights and gang attacks, are on the rise.

Warlene Gary, chief executive of the National Parent Teacher Association, said she wondered why it took three highly publicized school shootings to prompt a national conference when shootings in and near schools have become a too-frequent occurrence in urban areas such as the District.

"I hope people will collaborate and get things done, but we're sitting in the audience listening to experts talk about issues," said Gary, who lives in Silver Spring.

"The question is, when people walk away from it, what will they do?"

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