Lessons to take from summit . . .

Acting locally: Politicians and experts pronounce -- now parents must act.

May 12, 1999

PRESIDENT Clinton's White House summit on youth violence may yield strategies for parents, but no one should wait for these high-level ruminations to be digested, sanitized and distributed in a government binder.

"Obviously, we have asked you to come here to see what we can do together to give our children safer childhoods," Mr. Clinton said as he convened his meeting this week. "Let's leave here resolved to be, all of us, part of this national campaign. I want us to have a good conversation about where we go from here."

Parents want more than talk. They're not particularly concerned about the debate between gun control advocates and the National Rifle Association -- or even about the impact of TV, movies and the Internet.

What they want, among other things, is a sense of when to intervene in the lives of their teen-agers -- and when intervention makes things worse. Every parent knows it's a guessing game, but if the president can find some new "tools" as he promised, a willing audience awaits.

In the meantime, parents might be reassured by hearing that their neighbors have the same anxious questions and concerns. Local forums convened by churches, improvement associations, PTAs, athletic leagues and other organizations could provide useful brainstorming opportunities -- even sharing successful approaches.

The conveners of these discussions could arrange to become local clearinghouses of information from the event held in Washington and from other sources.

Students of human behavior suggest the carnage of Littleton, Colo., should be seen as an aberration, the statistical equivalent, as one writer observed, of a needle in a haystack. Fewer than 1 percent of child homicides occur in or around schools.

Yet a half-dozen major shootings have occurred in schools over the past 18 months. Parents may be forgiven if their confidence isn't fully restored by the probabilities.

John D. Graham, director of the Center for Risk Analysis at the Harvard University School of Public Health, warns that a preoccupation with school shootings could divert "energies from the big risks that adolescents face, which are binge drinking, traffic crashes [and] unprotected sex."

The sad truth may be that parents cannot afford to ignore any of these threats, including guns in the classroom.

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