Bill Clinton on School Violence
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PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Thank you, Mr. Porter. I think all of you know that we are being joined by several million students through various media outlets that are covering this, and so let me begin by saying I’m delighted to be here at T.C. William High School.
Thank you, Mr. Porter. Our Superintendent, Herb Berg, is here, and I’m glad to be back in this school district again that has hosted me for so many important educational announcements. Senator Robb and Congressman Jim Moran are both here with us, along with Mayor Kerry Donley. I thank them for joining us, and our two teachers, Ellen Harmon and Barbara Finney.
I want to spend most of my time today listening to you. I have a few questions I want to ask and I’m going to turn it over to the teachers as soon as I make a few opening remarks. But I got up this morning and I made some notes and worked over them again, and I’d like to say just a few things.
First of all, we’re here, obviously, because of the terrible tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, and because, even though it is the worst example of school violence we’ve seen, it is by no means the only one. And indeed, I think that some of the people joining us today are from Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas — at least those two communities which had examples of school violence last year.
I think it’s important that, all over America, students and teachers have a chance to discuss their feelings about this, their ideas about what we should do. And it’s especially important for younger children, who might be quite traumatized, and wonder whether they are, in fact, safe at school. So I want to talk a little about all of that.
There is really nothing more important than keeping our schools safe. And we’ve tried to do a lot of things in that regard over the last few years — having a zero tolerance for guns and drugs policy, putting new community police officers in schools where they’re needed, trying to support more counselors in schools, more after-school, more mentoring programs, more conflict resolution programs. We’ve tried to help school districts and students and teachers who wanted to do it to have — for younger children, elementary and junior high school, using school uniform policies or dress code policies where they wanted to implement those things.
But we know that there are things which have to be done sort of beyond the government and beyond anything government can do. I spent a lot of time thinking about this, but I want to say, last night and today I thought about the work that my wife has done on this for many years, and I went back and re-read the chapters in her book that deal with the problems that children have in coping with violence, and the responsibilities of parents and the larger society. I thought about the work that the Vice President’s wife, Tipper Gore, started doing well over a decade ago on this whole issue.
And I think we have to ask ourselves some pretty hard questions here: What are the responsibilities of students themselves? What are the responsibilities of schools? What are the responsibilities of parents? What is the role of the larger culture here? Is there a sense in which the fact that all of you are exposed to much higher levels of violence through television, through video games, that you can actually figure out how to make bombs on the Internet — does that make a difference? Does it make these kinds of things more likely to happen? What are our responsibilities?
But before I open it to you, I’d just like to make one other comment. I think, particularly for young people who may be quite frightened as a result of this, or for parents who may wonder about the safety of schools, I think it’s worth restating two or three basic things.
First of all, on balance, our schools are still the safest place our kids can be in most communities under most or all circumstances. Secondly, I think it’s worth reminding everyone that in spite of these horrible instances, our country is still fundamentally a good and decent place, and our people are good and decent people. And we have see the way the community of Littleton responded to this — people standing in line for hours to give blood; people showing up to volunteer their services as counselors and in other ways; with the way people have reached out to each other. We see a kind of microcosm of how America has reacted to this.
And I think it’s important that the young people of our country know this and that the parents know this, that they should remember we — as horrible as this is, we have seen once again what is basically decent and good about America. And we should remember that most schools are more nearly represented by the kind of conversation we’re having around here today than by the horrible incident we saw in Colorado. So I think that’s enough for me to say.
But I’m interested in what you think about it — what your reactions are, what you’ve done here to try to avoid this, and what you think the responsibilities of the rest of us are, starting at home and going all the way up to the President, and also the cultural issues I mentioned.
You know, we have to acknowledge, as Hillary does in this book — and I went back and read some of the things we talked about over the last 20 years — that we do have more violence among younger people in America than other cultures do. And everyone has to take a hard look at what all the elements of our society are that contribute to that and what we can do to diminish it.
I also would like to say — let me just mention one other thing. I think it’s important because of the action in which we’re involved in Kosovo today. We don’t know all the facts about what happened in Littleton, but one of the things that’s come out of this that’s really made an impression on me is that the young men who were involved in this horrible act apparently felt that they were subject to ridicule and ostracism and they were kind of social outcasts at the school.
But their reaction to it was to find someone else to look down on. And, apparently, they were very prejudiced against African Americans and Hispanics, and observed Adolf Hitler’s birthday, and otherwise reacted to that. This is something that you see a lot, around the world and throughout human history, that people who themselves feel disrespected, instead of developing an enormous sympathy for other people who have been subject to discrimination, instead look for someone else to look down on; so they can always say, well, I may be dissed at school, or I may be subject to disrespect in some other environment, but at least I’m not them.
And I think that’s a larger problem we really have to fight, because you look around this room — of course, we’re in perhaps the most diverse school district in America today — but this is a great opportunity for us, as long as we lift other people up, and recognize the inherent dignity and worth of all individuals and all ethnic, religious and cultural groups.
And so I think that’s another point that needs to be made here — they had the wrong reaction to the fact that they were dissed. Hey, look, everybody gets dissed sometime in life. Even the President — (laughter) — sometimes, especially the President. So these are some of the things that I was thinking about that I hope will spark your thoughts. And I think I’ll turn it back to you and to the teachers to discuss this in any way you’d like.
MS. HARMON: Okay, maybe I’ll start us off, here. I’m a government teacher here at T.C., and many of these students are government students. We’ve been discussing this quite a bit between yesterday and today. We also have some peer mediators here with us today, and I believe some other students.
Goodness knows, adults have enough to say about this, so this is really your time to have a conversation and to share your thoughts with the President on this and with each other. So I’d like to just open it up to the students. And is there somebody who has a question or a comment that they’d like to share right away?
Who wants the mike?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, pass the mike.
MS. FINNEY: Mr. President, I would like for one of my mediators to tell you how mediation works in this school, and it definitely works. I respect the mediators, they are models of respectful behavior, and mediation really is based on respect for human dignity.
Now, I have some very good mediators in this building. Unfortunately, I could not bring them all in here and I was very limited. So I got some of my veterans. And I would like to hear from Zori (phonetic) first. Zori is one of our veterans who is a senior who will be going off to college, and I will miss her.
STUDENT: Hello. Well, first of all, I think that because of the peer mediation program in this school, it has helped a lot of students. And I think that if they had that in maybe Littleton or if they had a type of setting where students could just basically talk and release, and it seemed like — it really dd seem like a tragedy in Littleton, from a buildup of anger or aggression that really should have been let out. And I think that works with programs like peer mediation.
MS. FINNEY: I’m sorry, I’m Mrs. Finney, the peer mediator advisor.
Q Hello, my name is Tomika Barber (phonetic). A mediation works where there are two students — sometimes even more — Ms. Finney gets a complaint. It can come from an administrator; it can come from students, themselves; teachers. And we have a circle table where we sit, two mediators, and let’s say, for example, myself and Zori, and we sit at the table and the people that’s are getting mediated, they come in and they’re seated down also.
We have four basic ground rules that we tell them that they agree to follow. One is no name-calling, no interruptions, to be honest, and to work hard to solve the problem. And we get into the mediation that way. And we ask who would like to go first. We hear both sides of the story.
We then recount it to them, asking them, well, this is what you’re saying to us. And once we come to agreement that this is what happened with the problem, the situation, then they try to, themselves, find a solution for it. And we, as mediators, we help them find solutions for their problem. And they have an option of going through with this, following through, being able to calm down, sit down and talk this problem out with us. And it’s a good program.
THE PRESIDENT: I wanted to ask this question — because I honestly believe that young people can help each other — particularly at this age — maybe more than adults can, maybe in some cases, more than their parents can, if things get out of hand.
But what I want to ask you is, how do they get there, if they’re really angry? What if they’re too embarrassed about what they think is being done to them to talk about it? Do they get there only when they come to you, or do other kids say, hey, these two people are having trouble, or these two groups are having trouble. You need to go to them. Can you all talk to me about that?
STUDENT: Yes, Mr. President. My name’s Jenny Dennis. I’m also a peer mediator here at T.C. And just as Tamika said, people can be referred to mediation. Students themselves can come and let Ms. Finney know privately and confidentially that they would like to be mediated with other students — they feel threatened, or embarrassed, like you said, and they just need to get things off their chests.
And one of the things that Zori did say was that the problem in Littleton appeared to be anger that had built up, and the action that was taken could have been prevented, I think. But one of the things that we do do, in mediation, is we let the students vent out their problems. Each side gets a turn to talk, and sometimes there can be confrontations right at the table, but Ms. Finney and an administrator are there to take care of the problem.
And I’ve noticed a lot of times that the more they talk about the situation, the more the real story comes out. It’s hearsay that goes by, and the venting out, letting them talk about it, and talk to each other really helps them to get the anger out that it appears it built up in these few teenagers in Littleton.
THE PRESIDENT: Go ahead.
STUDENT: Another good thing that this school has is, we have a safety hotline that’s been instituted. And then that safety hotline, they can reach peer mediation, and it’s confidential. It should be instituted in all the schools across the country, I feel. And this really could have been prevented if they had something like this, because a lot of people said they were threatened by the people in this crew. And a lot of people said that they’d seen it on the Internet. Somebody could have called the safety hotline, if this school had one instituted.
THE PRESIDENT: So you’re saying if they had a hotline, as opposed to a peer mediation group, then someone who was afraid —
STUDENT: No, they work together — they work together.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s what I mean. In addition to. So, if someone were afraid, they could call the hotline and say, here’s what I think is going on.
STUDENT: Yes. And it’s confidential, you just —
THE PRESIDENT: Okay. Suppose I call the hotline and say, listen, I just talked to one of these people, and they’re talking about getting guns and shooting people — then what happens? I called the hotline, here. What happens?
STUDENT: Peer mediation can be contacted with that. Because you have given us a name, or Mr. Porter can talk to them or something.
THE PRESIDENT: I think this is good. That’s wonderful. Okay.
STUDENT: Hello. I’m a peer mediator, and what’s so wonderful about peer mediation is that peers can talk to other peers without them being punished. So it’s more like they feel more confident when they come to peer mediation, because you don’t have to worry about getting punished, or teachers bringing attitudes toward you or anything, you feel more comfortable. And the peer mediators, they learn more, too, because as you help others, you see that other problems, or you could handle them in a simpler way because you see what the teacher sees it through. Like, if you’re doing a teacher’s job, then you could see what they’re going through and how petty everything looks. That’s what I got out of it.
STUDENT: And prevention is better than cure, and it prevents all of that from happening beforehand.
STUDENT: Mr. President, as you noted earlier, this is a very diverse school. And one of the problems in Littleton was perhaps that that school was not as diverse, and the people who were feeling ridiculed felt that they maybe didn’t have a place to go, like a group that they fit in with. And here at T.C. Williams, being so diverse, everyone really has a group they can be with. There really is no way a person cannot have a group they can go to, because there are so many different types of people here at T.C. Williams. It’s really stunning, if you look down the halls how many different people we have, how many cliques, how many social groups, racial groups, national groups. It’s really amazing.
STUDENT: May I just comment on that? I’d love to tell you all the great things that makes T.C., makes all of us feel so safe, and makes T.C. such a great place. But the fact is that I think the kids in Littleton also felt that their school was just as safe as we all do. And the thing is, is that I don’t know if it could have been prevented, you know, and if there are things. But the thing that I’d like to say is that what’s so great about T.C. is our administrators in T.C. We’re all — I feel — personally, I feel like we’re all able to come to the administrators, and the administrators and teachers in some way are all connected in the community, and we all know each other pretty well. And they’re very — they know what’s going on, some way or another. Before the kids find out I think the administrators just jump on it. And I think that’s really important, to have a real keen administration. But, you know, I don’t think that Littleton’s administration was any less than that.
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I think that’s a very brave thing for you to say. But there’s no doubt that those people are very good people, that they have a good school, that they thought things were rocking along — which is why — that’s why what you said I think is very important, that there needs to be some organized outlet that people can access privately. Because nearly everybody in America believes this couldn’t happen in their school. So I think having this way to call and say, this is going on — we all need warning systems.
STUDENT: But, see, the problem is — what I feel is, I feel the administrators knew about this because a lot of people say, like, on the news and stuff, the students seemed to know about this crew already and seemed to not have done nothing about it. They didn’t bother to prevent it — because they had a page in the yearbook for this crew and everything already.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, but the point I’m trying to make is that — a lot of people seemed to have known in general, but most people didn’t — a lot of the people who knew, I think, didn’t know that they might do what they did. And that’s why it’s important to feed all this stuff in someplace, because there are people who do know that — let me come back to the beginning here. I’d like for you all to talk about this.
Let me just say what I was going to say. One of the things that all kids are taught by their parents, you know, is this old “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That ain’t true, if you’ll let me use bad grammar. (Laughter.) That’s not true, because a lot of this stuff starts with words, you know? And even in what I do and the people I deal with, it’s amazing how much energy is lost and how many things are not done for America because people in Washington, D.C., at the highest levels of power and influence, get hurt by what other people say about them — mean, bad things other people say about them. And then they get in the position where they try to bait each other to say mean, bad things, you know.
And I think that somehow, maybe we all — particularly in a culture that desensitizes people to violence, if they’re profoundly alienated — and I still think that’s a big part of this — all of us have to do a better job of teaching young people not to let themselves be defined by the words other people use against them.
That’s something that really struck me when I read these accounts, is how alienated these young people were because these athletes were saying bad things about them or who else was saying bad things about them. They were different. But, then, they had to look for somebody to feel bad about.
That’s why I like this peer mediation thing, because it tends to take the sting out of words at the earliest possible time. But people really still get hurt so badly by what is said about them. And somehow, we’ve got to make people more immune to that.Go ahead.
STUDENT: What really bothers me is the students, the two students having so many bombs and just having those booby — I was wondering where they got it. And it seems to me that they’re really into this Internet, having their own Web page. I think that they got their sources — I mean, how to make them — out of the Internet. I mean, what is our government doing to prevent this information, dangerous information, you know, so that they don’t make bombs and they don’t blow people up and they don’t hurt people?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, when the bomb blew up in Oklahoma City and the Federal Building was destroyed and all those people were killed, we pointed out that the way the Internet is going with these Web pages — people can learn how to build bombs like that on the Internet. And there is a limit to how much we can control it. And we’re looking for ways to try to at least help parents deal with what their children can get off the Internet, and a way to use ordinary law enforcement tactics effectively against people who are trying to do illegal things over the Internet. But it’s very difficult.
I mean, one of the things that’s wonderful about the Internet is kind of its capacity for infinite expansion. And that’s one of the great things about it. I don’t know how many teachers here now get research papers where all the sources are off the Internet. But it’s great. That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s almost impossible to find this stuff, sort it out and figure out whether it’s illegal or not, and do something about it. But I agree with you, it’s going to be one of the big challenges we face, because there’s been a lot of talk about — if you’ve seen in the last three or four days about whether the Internet plus having very young people play very violent video games where they learn to shoot people and stuff, that those two things have added an extra element to an otherwise already pretty violent culture. And I think we’re going to have to take another look at it.
It’s not easy. I don’t want to pretend that it’s easy. If you look at how many thousands and thousands of pages, Web pages, are being added to the Internet every day, it’s the fastest growing organism in human history for communications. And it presents us a great challenge.
STUDENT: Hello. My name is Sean Sinota (phonetic). I can say that, whose responsibility is it, really, over the Internet? Because it would be very hard for the government to control it, and then you get into the ideas of free press and, you know, free speech. But what about the parents, what about the teachers, you know? These kids don’t just have these computers in their own house and doing their own thing. There should be people watching them. It’s not your responsibility, or anybody else in the government’s responsibility to keep kids off it. It all comes back to home. It all comes back to school. It all comes back to the community.
And I think that if people really wanted to have things like bombs taken off the Internet, then it would have to come from back home, come from people, come from houses, come from parents that are upset with their kids looking at how to make bombs and how to shoot guns. Not from the government, but it has to come from people that can — they can cry all they want about how kids are looking at it, but it all really comes from yourself. Just keep your own kids off of it, and keep yourself off of it. And eventually, that’s the way to destroy it.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I do think it’s important that in all these discussions, we not take the focus away from the home. I agree with that. If you look at all the facts that we know from the incidents that happened last year — all the school violence incidents — it appears that there were some cases in which the parents were — to go back to what you said, about how other kids knew and they didn’t call in — there appears that there were some cases in which the parents knew that the kid had a problem, including an obsession with guns and bombs; and there were other cases where they didn’t know, and might not have been able to know. But I do think that we shouldn’t minimize that.
The only thing I want to — to go back to what you said about the Internet — I agree with that. You don’t want me to choke off the Internet. It’s one of the greatest things that ever happened. But we’ve got to figure out a way to apply the ordinary restrictions of the criminal law in that context, just like you would any other. I think that’s all you’re saying, is we need to — if somebody’s doing something illegal there, we should — but the problem is, how do you — how do parents limit their children’s access to something they shouldn’t be able to see? And I do think that the role of the Internet, and the way it’s bringing everything into the home, has made a parent’s job much more difficult. And it’s harder to know what to do and how to do it. It’s much, much harder. And I think we ought to just fess up to that.
But I’m sympathetic with you. We don’t want to destroy what’s great about the Internet. It’s revolutionizing the American economy; it’s opening up opportunities for people, opening up educational opportunities; bringing whole libraries to homes of people who could never afford them. I mean, it’s doing a lot of good. But we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with these downside risks.
STUDENT: My name’s Erica Brisker (phonetic), and in terms of talking about parents and things, as much as I can see, people that I can perceive about this, that administrators and students knew what was going on, or knew that there was —
THE PRESIDENT: A problem.
STUDENT: — things happening, that there was a problem. I would think that the administrators would try to call the parents, to let the parents be aware of it, because it’s the best way to do it since the parents are supposed to be in charge of the kids in their home. And that at least if both the parents and the administrators had a watch on, that they might be able to fix the problem. At least, even if they didn’t know that there were bombs in the house, or whatever, they might be able to call and deal with mediation or whatever needed to happen.
MS. FINNEY: I also want to say, Mr. President, that there was a young man that was on the news the other day saying that he knew these two guys. And he also said that he heard them planning this last year. If this young man had had the initiative to tell someone he trusts in the school, or his parents — I mean, we don’t know now, but I would hope these kids here, sitting here, if they have a peer or they hear about it, that they can get in touch with someone. And someone — it would be someone like me, their administrators, a supporter, and we will take that time to try to get those students in, just to see what’s going on.
And I know I have very sympathetic mediators, especially the ones I have here today. And I have some more good ones, and they always come and inform me of things that might be happening or they have observed. And we try to get a handle on that. And if we get that, we can eliminate some of the problems.
THE PRESIDENT: I want to hear from the students, but that goes back to what you said. What I would like to — the message to go out across all the millions of students like you that are listening, and all of the schools, is that no matter how good your school is and no matter how good your programs are, we need a little humility here. And you’re not doing something bad if you hear people talking about doing something or you see them becoming profoundly alienated in ways that could be destructive, if you tell someone who’s in a position of responsibility to do something about it. They’re not going to be punished if they hadn’t done anything wrong, but we might be able to prevent more of these things.
I do think that one of the lessons that will come out of this incident, no matter what the facts turn out to be, is that there has to be a hotline, there has to be some sort of early warning system; there has to be a climate in which children feel, young people feel that they can ring the alarm bell when they see something like this.
STUDENT: Hi, Mr. President, my name is Cindy.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes, you’ve been waiting a long time — she’s been waiting longer than anybody else. (Laughter.)
STUDENT: Coming from a different background, I’m Hispanic, and I go every day to maybe — my two parents that work, and they work hard. But I think that what we’re missing are morals. I think that we should be taught correctly. And even though they’re not home, they know I’m doing right. Thus, it should also go to the administration in the schools. There should be more discipline toward the students.
THE PRESIDENT: I agree with that. But what happens if all of that still doesn’t work because young people at some point develop a whole other life? I mean, when you look at what is apparently the fact here, these — they created a whole new culture for themselves, a whole other life, which — we don’t know the facts yet about what their parents did or didn’t know, about what the schools did or didn’t know. I think it’s important for us not to make hasty judgments about Littleton.
I agree with what you say. But I also think in addition to what you say, we’ve got to have some warning system to protect everybody else.
STUDENT: Usually, when I watch the news there’s a lot of blame being placed on movies and video games. I really feel that people should stop placing blames on things like that and just actually spend more time with their children. For instance, my mother runs a salon — usually, she’s not able to be at home, but usually, once she gets back home around 8:00 p.m. or after closing, we all sit down together and work out our little discussions or problems we have at school. So I really think that’s really missing in society today.
STUDENT: Also, Mr. President, I think that one thing that my parents taught me is that, like a tree, you form it when it’s little, and how you form it when it’s little, it comes up right. So it should all start when you’re a little person. Don’t start to discipline your children like when you’re 15. You can’t do nothing at that age. It should start at home when the children are starting to grow — maybe at the age of three, four, when they’re learning their morals, when they’re learning what’s right and what’s wrong. In that way, that tree won’t be bended, that tree will be straight.
THE PRESIDENT: Go ahead.
STUDENT: I just had a quick question for you. A lot of blame has been placed in different areas — areas of higher crime, saying that those kids are going to be more inclined to repeat crimes. Seeing that this was an area, it’s like a white suburban area, an area of lower number of minority people, what do you think this is going to mean for the country? Do you think it’s going to take the focus off of racial groups as being like the cause of problems?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I hope so. You know, it’s interesting — all of these instances of school violence, even though they occurred in schools which some had a lot of racial diversity, some had not much racial diversity, but they all occurred away from inner-city areas with very high unemployment and high general crime rates. They tended to occur more in small towns and rural areas or suburbs, where you normally would not think that society itself falling apart around you would happen.
Now, part of that could be the absence of the kind of warning and alert systems that you often have in the big city schools. I mean, a lot of big city schools, for example, all routinely have metal detectors and things like that because they know they’ve got to protect their kids. But I think what it means is that whatever is out there in our culture, whether it is the failure of parents to teach their kids, whether it is that plus then the extra exposure to violent experiences when you’re young, kind of one step removed through media or video games or whatever, whatever it is — what it shows is that the people in rural America and in suburban America, in low-crime America and upper-income America are just as vulnerable to having alienated young people in gangs or in isolation take violent action. I think that’s what it shows. And it should destroy any of our racial or economic stereotypes about this. This is something that can happen anywhere. That’s the point you made, and I think that’s right.
STUDENT: It’s great that our school has the hotline we can call and the peer mediators that we can go to. But we also, in this school, have social workers and psychologists. I mean, there’s people in school who are trained professionally that are here. And I think that’s great that we have that choice. I mean, we have so many choices that we can choose from. We can go to the peer mediators, or we can call the Safety Hotline, or we can go see these professional social workers that we have in the school.
And I was wondering, I mean, how much of the schools around the U.S. do they have that? I mean, I want to know if it can prevent —
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the truth is that some do and some don’t. More and more, I think, schools are doing that. Some have economic constraints; some may not think they need them. But I believe that — I can tell you this. One of the things I have tried to do is to make it possible for schools to have more trained personnel and more options to serve children, and have a whole variety of different needs.
And I suspect that one positive thing that will come out of this awful incident is that schools all over America today will be doing an inventory of what kinds of supports they have for their children. And they will — I expect, just because we’re doing this, your principal and your teachers will be flooded with inquiries over the next two weeks about what you have done here; about the peer mediation thing, about the — what kind of social workers you have, what kind of psychologist do you have, what kind of support do you have — because I think we will see everybody taking a serious look at this.
I’m glad you made that point, though, because there are people who have genuine emotional problems that require more professional, intense, longer-term help than even the peer mediators can provide. So I think that’s an important point you make.
STUDENT: Hi, my name’s Jannelle Mitchell (phonetic) and I’m a senior here at T.C. And I just wanted to know that, I mean, when is there going to be a change? I mean, there’s been a lot of acts of violence in the schools recently, and I think that, now that you know about peer mediation and hotlines and everything, I think there should be immediate action towards these things, so they don’t happen again. Because as a student, I need to have that guarantee of safety, and truthfully, I really don’t feel safe anymore. Maybe not at this school, it’s really safe here, but at other schools. I feel very sorry for the students who don’t have the resources that we have.
And I think that it’s going to need immediate action, for kids in other places that don’t have the resources that we do, so they can feel safe when they go to school. I mean, it’s a real tragedy that something like this had to happen before real action is done. And I want to know, when is the government, when are you going to do something for the other students out there?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, you should know that we have provided, already, funds — last year — for a lot of these services for schools. And the Attorney General and the Secretary of Education put out a booklet that basically cited the best practices in all the schools.
We don’t — the federal government doesn’t run this high school. You know, you have a local school board, and most of the money comes from the state. We give some money, so — but what we did, we sent out a handbook, which basically had the best practices, for early warning signals, for preventive programs. for the kinds of things that you do here. And we’ve provided a lot of support to help schools to have the services they need to make them more safe.
Now, in the next few days I’m going to send another piece of legislation up to the Congress to do even more of this. But for it to work, people have to use the resources that are there, and implement the systems that are there, and it has to be done in every school in the country.
Let me just say — this is kind of along the lines of your question — when I called the County Commission in Littleton, Colorado, the woman who’s in charge of the local county government there, she was very, I thought, quite brave, considering it was in the middle of this crisis. The school hadn’t even been — not all the children had been taken out yet. And she said, well, if this can happen here, it can happen anywhere, and maybe, finally, every school in America will do what is necessary to try to prevent this.
So we have — last year we had the first White House conference in history on school safety. We have sent things to every school in America and we have — and I said, I’m going to send another bill this week, or in the next few days, to do more. But it has to — every school has to realize that if you want to be safe you have to be prepared, just like you are here.
STUDENT: Hi. I’m a junior here at T.C. Williams. I just want to say that there’s really no way where you can point out to a racial group or a social class that they’re the ones responsible. I think we should — parents, teachers, the government, the students, themselves — we should all work together to try to prevent this thing.
Many things we try — many times we forget that a small crack can cause a big problem. We tend to ignore students, parents, teachers and so forth. We tend to ignore — there are things which occur in life, or things that you hear when you’re walking down the hallway and we just think nothing of it.
But many things shape an individual — influence from parents, what they have taught you when you were little; influence from your teachers; the actions which your friends made. But, overall, as an individual you should be shaped by all these actions and everything that has gone around you to make the right decision and know when to act on something. And there’s really — I mean, of course, you’re going to put limitations on where you can get this information and that information — like, make bombs and everything — but there’s always going to be a way in which someone will be able to obtain that information. You can’t just block it off forever or destroy the information completely — that would probably be the only way to solve it.
But I think it all depends — it goes back to all of us working together. It’s not an individual, it’s not a parent’s fault, it’s not a student’s fault. It’s everybody working together to achieve this goal and the common welfare of everybody and the safety for students, parents and the community, itself.
STUDENT: My name is Anna, and I just wanted to say that one of the greatest things about the hotline is that it’s anonymous. And I think oftentimes students are more tuned into other students. As connected as teachers and the community can be, it’s very student-to-student relationships, where they can pick up on things that are going on.
And I think a lot of times students don’t come forward if they’re suspicious of things because they’re afraid of the backlash or getting called names or more confrontation. I think being able to have an anonymous source is very important, so that there are people aware that can take the right steps into looking into things. So I think that having an anonymous hotline is very important.
STUDENT: Mr. President, I also think that racism should stop, because even though we are a different color, we have a different background, we’re all individuals, and we all should treat — we should all be treated equally. We all can achieve anything we want. So the racism should stop, because the racism leads to bad things, like what happened in Colorado. That could have been prevented. The individual shouldn’t feel left out, they should feel as part of a group. Like us at T.C., we’re all part of a group. We’re part of a big family here, and we’re happy to be here. So I think that racism cannot produce anything good. So we should all see each other as individuals that are equal.
THE PRESIDENT: Great. Yes?
STUDENT: My name is Ryan. I was just going to say the same thing. I think, in addition to the peer mediation and the safety hot lines, there really isn’t any sure-fire guarantee that this isn’t going to happen again, because all it does is — it takes one person for this to happen again. And I think the main message we need to spread here is that high schoolers all over America, you know, you just need to be more sensitive to others and more considerate. Because I think, obviously, this is one of the reasons why it happened in the first place and other places, too, like Paducah and Jonesboro.
So I think high schoolers everywhere just need to be more considerate and sensitive to other’s feelings, because I mean, it really will take a long while to change the mentality of, really saying, that, okay, words won’t really affect the way I feel. But in the meantime, I think being more considerate and just accepting people for who they are, like we do here at T.C., will hopefully eliminate some of the animosity.
THE PRESIDENT: I must say, these things you say to me are among the most impressive things of all, because all of us want to be part of groups, and we are part of groups whether we like it or not; we’re all part of groups. You know, we just — from the families we’re born in and the lives we live.
And the trick is to convince people that it’s good to be part of a group, a racial, an ethnic, a religious, a cultural group, to be an athlete, to be a scholar, to be into music, to be into whatever. But it’s not — it doesn’t have to be negative when compared with someone else. That’s the thing that breaks your heart.
And also, it’s very important — another reason I like this hotline and I like what you said is that it’s very hard to be 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 years old; and if you are very lonely and very alienated and you feel you don’t belong with anybody or anything, and then all of a sudden, one or two other people come along and they’re just like you, and then you find something on the Internet that you can read that you can relate to, and then things begin to spin out of control. And I think what you said about reaching out to people who seem to be alone and have nobody to care about them. I think that’s very, very important as well. I think that you know it a lot better than I do. But as old as I am, I can still remember, it was — I had some pretty tough times when I was 13, 14, 15, 16 years old — and I had a very fortunate life. You realize how hard you have to work to keep from getting into patterns that will be destructive throughout life where people feel that they only count when they’re in a group, that then they’re opposed to somebody else, they can look down on somebody else. It is the curse of human society throughout the world.
Go ahead. You two, and then — this young man hasn’t spoken yet, but go ahead. We’ll get you the mike as soon as he finished. Who wants to go next? Go ahead.
STUDENT: Back to what you were saying about — you said earlier about desensitizing our society. It seems like at this point, the children, the younger people still are more vulnerable to influence — they’re a lot more desensitized than maybe like 20 years ago. And I think the media really does need to take more responsibility for that, because the best-sellers in the box office these days are movies which have the most people killed. You know, like — in the trailer, you see, oh, those people are dying, and the violence, and we see on the news, it seems like all the news is bad news. So I think because of that, the value of a human life has gone down. And that’s why you see kids who think maybe they wouldn’t understand the impact of what they really did when they went into school that day, or any other of the seven cases of school violence.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. Let me say this — I really respect all of you very much to have said that this is a matter of personal responsibility, family responsibility, and you don’t want to blame the culture. I respect you for saying that — I don’t want to blame the movies or blame the video games; what you’ve said and how you’ve talked with your mother and everything.
But I think you have to recognize — let me just say, for example, when I was your age, if anything, the racism was more pronounced, the social hierarchies in the schools were dramatic. If you were between those who were in and those who were out, people fought regularly on the school grounds and they were vicious to each other and — but you didn’t have as much gun violence. And I think it is unquestionable that more people have more access to more weapons, and more people at an earlier age can move from profound alienation and misery into using violence against others than was the case 20 or 30 years ago, because they either have — they have more opportunities and because they’ve been desensitized, and maybe because they don’t have a chance to sit down with a mother or a father the way you do every night.
So the only thing I’m saying is, I think it’s important not to oversimplify this. And I hate it when people blame someone else and don’t take responsibility for what they did, but I don’t think we can be blind to the fact that there are more opportunities and there is a greater openness to taking violent action on the part of alienated people today than there was 20 or 30 years ago.
And I think the experience that these children have before, maybe — maybe even when they’re very young, before they form proper barriers in life about what’s right, what’s wrong, what can or can’t be done, makes them quite vulnerable.
STUDENT: I’m a little concerned at the backlash that’s going to go out against people who are like into Gothic culture and rock music, because they’re going to be blamed for instigating this whole situation. And I’m also concerned about being able to say things at school when you’re angry, because when you’re angry, you say things that you would not normally say. I’m really concerned that people are going to be suspended on the spot if they say something like “I hope something bad happens to you because I’m angry at you.”
THE PRESIDENT: So how do you think we should deal with that?
STUDENT: I really think that people should be more careful of what they say and use — like when they’re angry, there are more positive ways of dealing with the anger than saying bad things to other people, or screaming. There are healthier ways to deal with your anger than just going out and threatening people because they’re totally mad at them, or sitting there and brooding over it. Like we said, there are counselors here, there are psychologists. If there is somebody people can talk to, to talk about what’s making them angry and what’s making them unhappy, I would think it’s a lot easier. Because I, personally, have a family that I can talk to when I have stuff to complain about, and I find it much easier to deal with after I vent out some of that negative emotion, like when I talk to my dad about what’s bothering me at school or what’s the problem.
THE PRESIDENT: Good for you. Let me say, just generally, I don’t think — if all of you who have participated in this conflict resolution thing — maybe you’ve seen enough of this in other students to know this — but I can tell you from having lived a lot more years, this is a big problem later in life, too. Sometimes it’s a bigger problem for men than for women because of the cultural sort of preconceptions of our society.
If you don’t learn to talk about your feelings when you’re young, and you don’t have a constructive outlet for it, it just gets harder and harder and harder as you get older. And we’re talking today about avoiding terrible tragedy. But we ought to talk just a minute about having a good life. You know, most people won’t do anything really terrible and most people will have some sort of life, but if you want to have a good life you have to have some constructive outlet for your feelings.
And that’s one thing that I really like about this whole way we’re talking today. And I hope that it’s something that will go out across the country and will change the way young people just live their lives. And I hope it’s something you can take out of high school, because — you’d be amazed how many people my age, in very responsible positions, still can’t manage their anger because they never learned to have a constructive way to talk about it.
So this is not just — I mean, I know we’re here to talk about this school violence, and I don’t want to get off the subject, but I think that this is a general problem of life. And you have said a very important thing. And I hope that all of you will remember this, that it’s not just something for high school. And to avoid having bad things happen, learning to manage your anger and to actually share how you really feel about something, and get it behind you is one of the most important aspects of growing up. And you would be amazed how few people can really do it right.
STUDENT: My name’s Kelly Catrone (phonetic), and I just want to say that I think we also need to take a look at how easy it was for these boys in Colorado to get these guns. And I know we already have a waiting period on how long you can get guns, or whatever, but I think we need to take some other action to make regulations on weapons and other guns, so that they don’t fall into the hands of the wrong people, and this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.
THE PRESIDENT: There is no other country in the world where it is so easy for people to get and misuse weapons. And we have a culture of having a right to own weapons, and a right to use them, and a big hunting culture — and I grew up in it, participated in it, and enjoyed it very much.
But I have — every little thing I’ve tried to do, from the passing of the Brady Bill to the passing of the assault weapons ban, all these things have met with violent opposition, as if I were trying to destroy the American way of life. And all I’m trying to do is keep more people alive. And so I think that we need — we don’t have, really, time to talk about this, because I want all of you to talk, but this will be a part of what we are trying to do, to strike a better, proper balance between making it harder for people who are violent to get guns and misuse them, without interfering with the constructive role that it plays in our society.
MS. HARMON: I was just going to say, we’re running a little short on time. Maybe we could take a few more questions. It’s up to you.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
STUDENT: We are one of the most free countries in the world. Like, we have more freedoms, more rights than almost any place else in the world. And the easy answer in the wake of a dilemma like this is restriction of those rights, take some of them away — high school kids, make them wear uniforms, make them have clear backpacks.
We have to be careful that we ensure people’s security without running high school like a prison system. We have to find a way where we can ensure people’s safety without at the same time treating young people like second-class citizens. And I’m really worried that in the wake of a disaster like this, then the first thing people are going to say is, oh, they’re kids, they’re rights don’t matter, you can just take them away — take away their freedom of speech, take away their freedom to be a person. And I just hope that that doesn’t happen.
THE PRESIDENT: First, I think that’s a point well taken. You mentioned school uniforms — let me tell you the position I took on that. I spent some time in Long Beach, California, which is the third biggest school district in California, which means it’s huge. And it’s the biggest school district that early introduced the school uniform policy — not applied to high schoolers, for obvious reasons. But they did it in part because when the junior high schoolers had uniforms — which were basically just two-color outfits they wore every day — it distinguished them from the gangs, which created a safety problem. And it made all the kids safe.
But they found, interestingly enough, that kids from upper-income as well as lower-income families did better in those very troubling years where you’re moving right into your teenage years. And it lowered dropouts, it increased attendance, it reduced discipline problems. It worked fine. What we tried to do was to say if the community decided they wanted to do it, then we would help them. And we’ve seen it happen a lot.
Now, my only question in this regard, in the order question you asked — and, again, I think it’s very important that we not rust to judgment in Littleton. Those people are still grieving; they are still heartbroken. We do not have the facts there. It is very important that none of us make judgments about that now. But we can make judgments about how we want all schools to run.
But one of the things that struck me there was this whole black trenchcoat deal, and whether or not — if the hotline, if they’d had a hotline, and whether or not you had this kind of stuff there — whether the school administrators should have been able to say, we’re not going to have a school uniform policy, but we’ll have a non-provocative dress code policy. Is that too much of an infringement on individual liberty?
We can’t answer that question. You’ve raised a good question. But let me just give you the other side of it. And you have to decide, in every case, whether it’s an infringement on liberty or it’s like going through a metal detector at an airport. I don’t know how many times, before I became President, I was just traveling around like all the rest of us, how many times I went through a metal detector at an airport, and I set it off because of my belt buckle, or the money clip in my pants, or whatever, so I had to turn around, take it all out, go back in, blah blah blah. Well, when all this started, people said, well, is this going to be an infringement on our liberty, right? And then people saw planes hijacked and blown up, and they said, please infringe my liberty a little bit — (laughter) — so that no one felt — I say, nearly no one felt that it was an undue infringement on our liberty.
I’ll give you another maybe what you think is a harder case, motorcycle helmet laws. You’ll say, I ought to have a right to split my head open if I want. But that’s not entirely true, because if I hit you and you split your head open, and you wouldn’t have if you’d had your helmet on, then I and society are supporting you, in a way.
So these questions — I am glad you made the point, but the point needs to be debated against the larger, the other large issue of individual freedom versus heading this stuff off. That’s all I’m asking. And you might keep little models in your head about the importance of free speech, see, on the one hand, and the airport metal detector on the other, and then whenever somebody comes up with a specific, argue it within that framework.
STUDENT: My name is Lauren Losanto (phonetic), and, Mr. President, your wife, Mrs. Clinton, knows what she’s talking about. It takes a whole village to raise people. And if we all — as a community, and a nation, and everything in a world — if everyone just looks out for everyone else’s kids, including their own, good things are going to happen. And Mrs. Clinton just knows what she’s talking about, I think.
THE PRESIDENT: I agree with that. Thank you. I think that’s very important, that — one of you asked me what I was going to do. I think that the import of what everybody said, all of you said today, is that we all have responsibilities here. And that all these children are our children, and we all have responsibility.
MS. HARMON: I’m sorry to have to say this, but the afternoon is drawing to a close here, students do have to move on. And we’re delighted —
THE PRESIDENT: You guys have got to get on the buses, right?
MS. HARMON: Yes, coming up anyhow. We’re very happy that all the students could participate today, and we’re so glad that you shared your thoughts in the candid way that you did. So thank you very much. And especially thank you to President Clinton for coming here and sharing, and listening to us as well. We’re delighted to have you here.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me just say this — I know we’ve got to sign off. First, you were terrific, and I thank you. I thank you for being honest. I thank you for being forthright. Second, in the next few days, as the agony of the grief fades in Colorado, and as the facts tend to come out more, I think — I’m speaking not only to those of you who are here in this room, but the millions of children all across our country who are listening, and the teachers, and the educators — we are going to be working hard on this. And anyone who has more ideas for us needs to feel free to send them to us at the White House, and send them to the Secretary of Education. We are working to reach out to the country. We want to do what we can to create more environments like this one, and to do everything we can to minimize the chance that anything like this will happen again. And we want to, in the process, reassure the children and the parents of America that overwhelmingly our schools are good, safe places.