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April 8, 1998

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First Lady
April 8, 1998

Shortly after midnight on the morning of March 25, when my husband and I were in Uganda, we were awakened with tragic news. For the fourth time since October, American children had opened fire on classmates at school.

This time, these tragic events happened in a town we knew well, Jonesboro, Ark. Four young girls and a teacher were dead. Bill and I were heartsick at this senseless loss of life.

Across the country and around the world, the questions were the same: "How could this happen?" and "What does it mean?" On talk shows, in newspaper columns and at kitchen tables, people sought explanations for this outbreak of child violence. The President called on the Attorney General and the Secretary of Education to convene national experts to study the tragedy.

But as the shock recedes, we are left with more questions than answers about how to prevent children from harming other children. Despite our inability ever to understand fully, we have to analyze why two young boys turned to violence if we are to find any help for the next child who might choose a gun to deal with his pain and problems.

We must not let ourselves off the hook by talking about "bad children" and "good children." We, the adults, have choices, and we know that the choices we make -- as individuals and as a society -- will affect how our children develop.

Everywhere we look, children are under assault, not just from violence but from neglect, from the breakup of families, from the temptations of alcohol, tobacco, sex and drug abuse, and from greed, materialism and spiritual emptiness. One in five American children lives in poverty. One in four is born to an unmarried mother.

This instability poses great risks to the healthy development and economic security of our children. The disappearance of fathers from children's daily lives has many consequences, including increased rates of violence and aggressiveness among boys. One of the ways to counter the absence of fathers is for adults -- especially men -- to step into the role of mentor and guide.

Clearly, children deserve safety and security at home. Yet, hundreds of thousands of children are victims of abuse and neglect. A recent study shows that children reported abused and neglected are 67 times more likely to be arrested between the ages of 9 and 12 than other children. Buffalo, N.Y.'s Police Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske sums it up this way: "We'll win the war on crime when we invest tax dollars in America's most vulnerable kids, instead of waiting until they become America's most wanted adults."

One of the best ways to combat juvenile crime is to give kids something positive to do after school. We should follow the example of Houston, Texas, where children play golf and soccer after school. Their mentors are coaches and teachers, not gang leaders.

We also have a responsibility to protect our children at home. Guns are the fourth leading cause of accidental deaths among children ages 5 to 14. Almost half of American households have guns, but often, instead of being locked up, they are merely hidden or left in a drawer.

In addition, we must take weapons off the streets. This week, my husband blocked the import of 58 types of military-style assault weapons into this country. As was the case when he signed the Brady bill, the gun lobbyists and manufacturers assailed the move and threatened to sue.

It's a moral outrage that these lobbyists and manufacturers are fighting this measure while at the same time marketing their products to our children -- just as the tobacco industry has for years. Every self-respecting gun owner should condemn this latest cynical move to turn children into targets of gun advertising before they are emotionally able to handle the responsibility.

And let's not overlook the importance of the mass media. Too many television shows, movies and rock lyrics romanticize and trivialize violence. And video games have managed to transform millions of television sets into scenes of violence that children not only watch but also participate in.

As I have suggested many times, it's time to turn the TV off and spend more time with our kids. Time, after all, is what every child wants and needs. We live in a fast world, where slowing down to spend time with our families is hard to do -- unless we make it a priority.

Our children are our greatest gift, our greatest responsibility, our greatest test. Never again do I want to wake in the middle of the night to the news that another child has murdered a friend or classmate. It's time for us to look into our children's eyes and remember what's important.

We owe this to Shannon Wright, the courageous teacher who sacrificed her life for her students. Her 3-year-old son keeps asking, "Where's Mommy?" We owe this to Natalie Brooks, Paige Ann Herring, Stephanie Johnson, Brittheny Varner and all the other children who have died so tragically on our watch.


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October 7, 1998

April 8, 1998

March 8, 2000

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