Two months after the mass shooting at Columbine High School, hundreds of Coloradans gathered today for a summit on youth violence and heard a relatively simple message from high school students: Parents should spend more time with their children and do a better job of instilling values.
"We need to attack the roots," observed Estee Blatter, a 17-year-old who will be a senior at Columbine when school resumes in mid-August. "Our main problem is at home."
Blatter was one of about two dozen Colorado high school students who kicked off the day-long discussion of school safety and violence at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. Originally scheduled for this fall but moved up because of the April 20 assault at Columbine that left 15 dead, the summit drew local, state and federal officials, clergy, youth workers and various experts. But it was the children themselves -- many of them profoundly affected by what happened at the school in Littleton -- who seemed to best cut through the clutter and speak from the heart.
"The reason I turned out good is I was blessed with a mother who still built me up regardless of what other people thought of me," said Julian Gilbert, a young African American from Denver. "That's what a lot of parents need to do."
Largely ignoring what has been a raging national debate over cultural decline, the impact of violent mass media and the easy availability of guns, Gilbert and his peers returned repeatedly to their simple message: Parents and school administrators alike need to be more supportive, more caring and more nurturing.
In opening the conference this morning, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) touched on that subject briefly as well, but dwelt far longer on the consistent Republican theme in the wake of Columbine: that the spate of school shootings attests to a loss of moral values, abetted by an increasingly violent mass media.
"We gather together here as a society because we are afraid," said Owens. "We are afraid something has gone profoundly wrong in our state and in our nation. . . . How much of the youth violence problem stems from the fact that too much of America seems to have lost its moral compass?"
Owens, who before the Columbine shootings had supported legislation to loosen restrictions on concealed weapons in Colorado, made no mention of the proliferation and accessibility of guns.
That prompted a rebuke from a Denver minister, one of a number of African American leaders who were angered that Owens and Attorney General Ken Salazar had scheduled the summit on the day of Juneteenth, an important celebration here that commemorates the belated freeing of slaves in Texas two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Rev. J. Langston Boyd Jr., pastor of the Shorter Community AME Church, said any discussion of youth violence must include the "fact that the sale and exportation of firearms is a big business in this culture" and recognize that the "culture of violence" in America has roots dating to the "colonization" of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans.
"There is a suburban summit and an urban summit on youth violence," Boyd argued, noting that solutions to inner-city youth violence usually involve incarceration while those offered for suburban violence usually focus on providing more counseling.
"It didn't get to this level of discussion until the cloistered white community was invaded by violence," Boyd said.
Dave DeForest-Stalls, a former pro football player who founded a nighttime youth center in downtown Denver, expressed a frustration often felt by those who work with sometimes-troubled high school students and who must fight parental indifference and a public funding system that favors stadiums and roads over social programs.
"We know what to do," DeForest-Stalls said. "We have chosen not to do it. . . . I run a nonprofit. I know what I can get out of people. I can get a check. I cannot get your time. That check goes to get someone to stay with your children. It goes to pay people for the time you are not giving them."
CAPTION: Estee Blatter, 17, who will be a senior at Columbine High School, speaks at Denver summit on youth violence held in the wake of the April 20 massacre at Columbine, as schoolmate Kristen Sheffield, right, listens.