IMAGE: Education Secretary Margaret Spellings
Evan Vucci  /  AP
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings addresses the school safety summit being held Tuesday in Chevy Chase, Md., urging schools to have a crisis response plan.
updated 10/10/2006 8:00:39 PM ET 2006-10-11T00:00:39

President Bush, bemoaning an “incredibly sad” wave of deadly school shootings, challenged the nation Tuesday to turn its remorse into aggressive action to keep kids safe.

“In many ways, I’m sorry we’re having this meeting,” Bush told a conference on school safety organized by the White House. “In other ways,” he said, “I know how important it is that we’re having this meeting.”

Bush called experts together for a meeting in the Maryland suburbs after shootings at schools in Wisconsin, Colorado and Pennsylvania. In panel discussions led by members of his Cabinet, speakers said the best response is basic: get parents, school leaders, students and police to work together.

“All of us in this country want our classrooms to be gentle places of learning — places where people not only learn the basics — basic skills necessary to become productive citizens — but learn to relate to one another,” Bush said, sitting with panelists before a school safety banner. “Our parents, I know, want to be able to send their child or children to schools that are safe places.”

Safety specialists at the gathering said that more than metal detectors or security cameras, the key to halting school violence is communication.

“Our first line of prevention is really having good intelligence,” said Delbert Elliott, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence in Boulder, Colo. He said schools should encourage kids to speak up when they hear classmates boasting of violent plans.

Prevention plan mapped out
The speakers hit the same themes — schools get safer when they take bullying seriously, practice their crisis plans, and talk to parents about what’s happening with their kids.

“The communication link is very important,” said George Sugai, a University of Connecticut education professor. “Parents are not going to engage the schools if they have to walk through a metal detector, if they have to go through steps to access the teachers.”

Craig Scott told the wrenching story of Columbine High School in 1999, site of the nation’s worst school massacre. He recalled hiding under a table in the school’s library that day when student gunmen went on a rampage, killing 13 people. One of them was his sister Rachel. He now speaks to schools on her behalf, encouraging students to choose compassion over violence.

“It’s such a high price to have to pay to be able to do this, but it’s so worth it,” Scott said, choking up in tears. “If we can carry messages that have value and that have substance — that aren’t Band-Aid answers — I believe that we’ll have impact.”

The lack of new solutions was not surprising. School safety experts have said for years that changing school culture is the best way to halt violence, although it’s hard to do.

Four weeks before the midterm elections, the event allows Bush to return to the politically safe issue of education and child safety. But the federal role in making schools safer is limited because education remains mainly a local matter.

About 300 people are attending the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase.

Colo. sheriff recalls hostage situation
Fred Wegener, the Park County, Colo., sheriff described responding two weeks ago, when a man held several girls hostage in a school before killing one and himself.

The school had just practiced an emergency lockdown in August. Students said after the shooting that they had seen the intruder, but assumed he was the parent of a classmate.

“I still think we had a safe school,” Wegener said. “I think it is just one of those times when an individual was able to get in.”

His story drew the room silent. “We’re not supposed to lose our kids at school,” he said.

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Video: Focus on safety

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