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Laura Bush Discusses Anti-Gang Initiative

February 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Mrs. Bush, welcome.

LAURA BUSH: Thank you very much

JIM LEHRER: In the State of the Union address President Bush announced your appointment to run the task force, the anti-gang task force. How did that come about?

LAURA BUSH: Well, actually, I think it started because I was already interested in boys. I’d gotten this – read this article in the New York Times Magazine and then just started investigating the statistics about boys.

And, you know, I would just come across one in the newspaper and another and another – something that I read – and the statistics are pretty alarming. Girls are going to college much more than boys, about 57 percent of the graduating class last year of bachelor’s degrees were women, which shows that fewer boys are going to college.

And we know all the statistics. About 90 percent of the members of gangs are boys; boys are the ones who drop out of school, who end up in jail. And I just felt like in our country that we bought into the stereotype that boys don’t cry, that boys can be totally self-reliant, and that we don’t have to nurture boys like we have to nurture girls. And all of us know intuitively that that’s wrong and so I really wanted to make an effort to focus all of our attention, for Americans to focus their attention, on boys for a few years to see if we can help them build successful lives.

JIM LEHRER: So this was your idea?

LAURA BUSH: So, it was my idea and then of course his idea and the part that they talked about, that he talked about at the State of the Union, is what we can do to help boys stay out of gangs and stay out of trouble, really is the whole idea.

I just went to a terrific program in Detroit today, called Think Detroit that was started by two Detroit lawyers who had grown up in Detroit themselves but gave up practicing law because they really think it’s so important to mentor children, and they created 650 coaches across the city. They coach boys and girls in basketball and baseball and soccer, and while they do that these coaches mentor children and particularly boys.

And there were some boys there today who could tell me their story and how that coach had changed their lives. Also, as we know, boys don’t have as many men in their lives as they used to because there are so many single-parent families and because families move around so much. A lot of boys are at home with a single mother; their grandparents don’t live close to them, and they really don’t have any other men in their lives.

And another alarming statistic is that fewer men are choosing teaching. So not only are there a lot of boys in single-parent homes but they don’t have men for teachers either, so all of those things are things we can change, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Where does the gang thing come in to this?


JIM LEHRER: How big a deal is that?

LAURA BUSH: It is a very big deal because gangs offer boys, young boys, exactly what we want families and mentors and coaches to offer them — and that’s acceptance in a group, something to do after school, somebody to be with after school, a way to feel cool, a way to get up some sort of self-esteem boost, and of course, as we know, it ends up being very, very destructive for boys.

And all those same things that boys need, acceptance and self-respect, and the care of an adult, a caring adult, we can give in another way and keep boys from being involved in gangs.

JIM LEHRER: How extensive a problem is this? Is it just in big cities, is it just in one part of the country or what?

LAURA BUSH: I think the gangs are everywhere.

JIM LEHRER: They are?

LAURA BUSH: They’re all over the country.

JIM LEHRER: Little towns?

LAURA BUSH: Little towns, too, and maybe not gangs in the sense that we – you know – the movie kind of idea of gangs that we hear — but certainly groups that are not constructive, that vandalize or commit crimes, or use drugs, or do things that are tempting to boys to do because boys want approval and because they want to be cool. And let me just say – it’s not only boys – girls as well, but boys are the ones who by and large make up the gang members.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what are you going to do about it?

LAURA BUSH: That’s a very interesting question and one of the things I’m starting with right now is visiting these programs around the country that are already successful, that we know they’re successful, that they have some track record, either from years of research — like a program that I went to in Baltimore on Tuesday that teaches children in the first grade how to be students.

And it’s been in the Baltimore schools for about 20 years and they know that there’s a statistical link between being in a highly disruptive first grade, a poorly managed first grade, where you don’t get a lot of academics, and failure later or dropping out of school later.

And there’s also a correlation between being in a very well managed first grade, where all the time is spent on academics and not on trying to get children to behave and being successful, graduating from high school for instance. And this is a very simple program. It’s inexpensive; it’s a program that any school district can incorporate. And the whole idea behind it is children don’t know how to be students — that that’s taught; it’s not intuitive.

Certainly our children probably watched us at home sit down and read and pay bills and write letters, and do all the things that we did, and they went to school knowing how to be students. But a lot of children don’t have that advantage.

JIM LEHRER: There’s an impression – correct it if it’s wrong – that you’re going to be out there busting up gangs, and that this is going to be head on —

LAURA BUSH: Oh, no. I don’t think that’s — I hope not that’s the perception. What I want to do is spotlight programs around the country that are really very promising programs, that show really good results —

JIM LEHRER: But, early. You’re talking about early, not necessarily at the gangs – directed at the gangs themselves —

LAURA BUSH: No, both. Both because of course the early program, the one I saw in Baltimore is for first graders, and that has a good outcome later in school for children. The one I saw today is a sports program that mentor —

JIM LEHRER: That’s the one in Detroit.

LAURA BUSH: Detroit. It’s for children, you know, as early as when you could start playing a team, maybe six, up to high school age. And of course the boys and girls that Think Detroit helps the most are the ones that are probably in middle school and high school, who really are searching and a really important man in their lives, a mentor in their lives, can make a huge difference.

JIM LEHRER: Now this program specifically has $150 million, I believe.

LAURA BUSH: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Now, how is that money going to be spent?

LAURA BUSH: Well, I’m not going to be the one obviously making the choices on that —

JIM LEHRER: You aren’t going to do it?

LAURA BUSH: — that’s money that’ll be, come out of the Justice Department and maybe some out of the Education Department, and that will go to programs that specifically address problems with children in gangs, ways that children are attracted to gangs, or other things we can do to keep children from being attracted to gangs

What I’ve done so far in my three visits — starting last week in Philadelphia and then Baltimore and Detroit — is just point out programs that communities everywhere could adopt; they could do something like them. There probably are already great mentoring programs and great after-school athletics programs in a number of big cities.

But we know those programs give kids something to do after school, play sports, and we know those programs give children a mentor, a coach. And coaches are very important.

When you ask a lot of boys, research shows, who made the most difference in your lives, they do prefer their parents first, and then a coach second.

JIM LEHRER: They don’t say librarians?

LAURA BUSH: Well, sometimes I think they say teachers.

JIM LEHRER: Say teachers, yeah.

But, so your job – to make sure I understand this – your job is going to be like what you did today. I mean, you went to Detroit and you talked to a large group of people —

LAURA BUSH: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: — and to highlight what? What is your message?

LAURA BUSH: Well, to highlight a very effective program that’s really making –

JIM LEHRER: That’s already there?

LAURA BUSH: That’s already there, that a lot of cities could copy if they don’t already have something like it – that’s making the difference in the lives of children.

Also, I will host a symposium for policy-makers and school superintendents and people from around the country, probably in September, to talk about all the ways that we can address what the real problems are and what are the real problems.

That’s what I want Americans to know. I want them to know what the statistics are — that boys are going to college in fewer numbers than girls, that we know already a lot of these things — that boys are the ones who end up in jail and all those other things, and then see if we can change those statistics and make them better.

JIM LEHRER: And create alternatives to gangs, in other words, give these kids what they’re getting from gangs —

LAURA BUSH: That’s right – give them what we know they need — give boys and girls the nurturing that we all know they need.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. In the back of your mind or in the front of your mind, do you have a goal that you can judge whether or not, hey, I think this is working, I think I’m being successful here? Is there anything that —

LAURA BUSH: I think specifically it would be if we can change those statistics; if we get the word out and parents need to know it too.

Parents also buy into the stereotype that their boys don’t need to be protected like their girls do, or you know, that their boys can just stay at home alone after school; they might not leave their girls home alone. But all of those things that we know really are not really good choices for boys.

JIM LEHRER: Are you going to say rough things about gangs themselves? Are you going to point out the evils of gangs?

LAURA BUSH: Well, sure. When I get all those statistics, I will say that as well.

But what I want to say is what’s really positive. What are the positive things we can do as a society to make our children’s lives, boys and girls, successful? You know, how can we make them — what can we do for them so that they can graduate from high school and go to college and end up with a skill and a career and a way to be successful?

JIM LEHRER: As I’m sure you know, your appointment has not been – is not without its critics. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said in an editorial yesterday, and let me quote what they said – the government’s gang czar – meaning you – should be someone with street credibility and a whole lot of law enforcement experience. For all of her admirable qualities, Mrs. Bush is neither —

LAURA BUSH: Doesn’t have that —

JIM LEHRER: Doesn’t have that. How do you respond?

LAURA BUSH: I don’t think I would be called a gang czar; I don’t believe that’s it. I think – my husband knew what I was really interested in, that I was interested in working on this — and not just about gangs, but also about what we can do middle school and high school age children who’ve gotten that far in school and can’t read or can’t read at grade level.

And before the election I was already visiting schools around the country that have started these programs where they intervened with seventh graders or eighth graders and bring them up to grade level really pretty quickly in reading. It’s amazing — there’s a lot of new research that shows how we can teach seventh and eighth and ninth graders to read pretty quickly and bring them up.

So I wouldn’t say that I’m the drug czar – and believe me, there are plenty of people in my husband’s administration who do have those qualities and are already in the Justice Department or in other departments, and he wasn’t appointing me to do that.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. So you’re fully at ease with your qualifications to be doing what you’re doing?

LAURA BUSH: I am — as a teacher, and a librarian, and, you know, an advocate for children for my whole life and, you know, what’s always been my interest. And so I think I have some qualifications to point out ways we can all help young people.

JIM LEHRER: One final question on another subject – you have spoken out repeatedly about the new rights that have come to the women in Afghanistan and Iraq — in fact it was also highlighted at the state of the union address.

But as we speak today there was an election in Saudi Arabia, and of course Saudi Arabia is a big ally of the United States, women are not only not allowed to run as candidates; they were not even allowed to vote in that election. What do you think about that?

LAURA BUSH: Well, I’m sorry that women weren’t a part of it. I think it’s very, very important.

On the other hand, I’m glad that Saudi Arabia has made the one step, the milestone actually to have an election. But I do really think that as we look around the world we can see what happens in societies where half of the people is left out, and it’s very important that to build societies, to build democracies, to have everyone’s voice included, and that of course means women as well as men.

So I hope that women’s rights and women’s right to vote everywhere will be taken very seriously around the world, and not just in Saudi Arabia, but in other places as well, and I’m very, very proud that women in Afghanistan and women in Iraq voted in their last two elections.

I will say, you know, when you look at our history, you know it takes a long time to change habits, and it certainly took us a long time for women to get the right to vote. For instance, we didn’t get the right to vote till the early part of the last century, and before that, to abolish slavery; I mean, it took us a long time even though we started with the perfect document that stated in that document that all men are created equal.

JIM LEHRER: So you will continue to speak out even if it involves allies —

LAURA BUSH: Sure. Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: — such as Saudi Arabia – on these kinds of issues?

LAURA BUSH: Absolutely. And the people of Saudi Arabia know that we think that in the United States, that we believe women should vote, as well as men.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mrs. Bush, thank you very much.

LAURA BUSH: Thanks a lot. Thanks, Jim. Good to see you.

JIM LEHRER: Good to see you.