Turn anguish to action, Bush says

President attends meeting in Maryland on ways to keep kids safe in school

October 11, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporter

CHEVY CHASE -- President Bush urged Americans yesterday to turn their anguish over school shootings in Pennsylvania and around the nation into "concrete action" to prevent further tragedies.

But he told a gathering of educators, activists and law enforcement officials that more federal funding and government regulation won't solve the problem.

"In many ways, I'm sorry we're having this meeting," Bush said as he wrapped up a conference hastily organized by the White House to respond to the recent spate of deadly school violence. "In other ways, I know how important it is."

Bush said the meeting, moderated by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, was part of "a nationwide effort to help people who are responsible to protect our children."

Trading ideas

More than 300 local leaders and specialists from around the country spent about six hours trading ideas, from drafting strong school emergency plans to urging fathers to get more involved in school, to providing character education for kids.

The president, peppered by criticism from Democrats who accused him of shortchanging school-safety programs, said the government shouldn't play the lead role in fostering a nurturing school environment.

"The federal government is a limited funder of education, and ... that's the way it should be," Bush said during a brief question-and-answer session. "It's really important that people not think government is a loving entity. Government is law and justice."

Administration officials also rejected calls for enacting new gun laws, saying Bush is focusing on enforcing existing statutes and prosecuting violent crime.

"There's only one common thread in all of these recent shootings, and that's the easy availability of guns by the assailants, whether they were [age] 15 or 50," said Theo Milonopoulos, a 19-year-old gun control activist from Los Angeles. "They just didn't want to address it."

Milonopoulos made the only mention of the issue during a question period with Gonzales.

`Complete denial'

Kristen Rand of the Washington-based Violence Policy Center said leaving guns off the agenda showed the administration's "complete denial regarding the catalytic role that guns play in school violence."

Bush took a seat at a three-sided table on the stage of a packed suburban Maryland auditorium in the headquarters of the National 4-H Council, a youth development organization. The administration had set up a mock classroom complete with fake wood paneling and a chalkboard backdrop emblazoned with the event's title, and Bush questioned participants about how best to share their experiences with others around the nation.

"What it shows is that this is a concern, and they're marshaling these types of figures from the federal government to show that the government is aware of what's going on in our schools," said Russell Tedesco, the director of security for Prince George's County public schools.

Democrats seized the opportunity to blast Bush for his education policy, noting that he worked to wipe out a key school safety grant program, which has been cut by more than 25 percent over the past four years.

Bush slashed the program because his budget office determined it was "ineffective," said Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman, and instead proposed "a more targeted and accountability-based approach."

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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