Gonzales, in Miss., meets with officials about school violence

Published 4:32 pm Thursday, May 3, 2007

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met privately with Mississippi public safety, education and mental health officials in Jackson on Wednesday about how to respond to violent incidents such as the Virginia Tech shootings.

In a news conference after the meeting, Gonzales offered few details about the discussion but said he would make a full report later to President Bush.

“Obviously, there are a lot of people, including the president of the United States, who are unsettled by what happened, the shootings at Virginia Tech,” Gonzales said.

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Mississippi was the site of a school shooting nearly a decade ago. On Oct. 1, 1997, Pearl High School student Luke Woodham, then 16, killed two students and injured seven others on the campus in the Jackson suburb. Woodham had killed his mother at home hours before the school shootings. He is serving three life sentences plus 140 years in prison.

“There is, unfortunately, a history here in Mississippi,” Gonzales said Wednesday. “So there are lessons, I think, that we can learn from that.”

Mississippi’s Republican governor, Haley Barbour, joined Gonzales at the news conference in the Woolfolk state office building near the Capitol. Barbour said Mississippi’s elementary and secondary schools put together emergency response plans after the Pearl High School shootings.

“Today, I think we realized that the community colleges and universities are going to look at how they should respond,” Barbour said.

Gonzales’ meeting in Mississippi was open to one television camera for only a few minutes — long enough for a crew to film him sitting with state and local officials.

Asked why the rest of the meeting was closed to the public, Gonzales responded: “I mean, we’re not interested in a (public relations) campaign…. We’re interested in trying to get good information from the people who really know about these issues so that we can best serve the American people.”

Gonzales said he, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings are traveling to several states to have meetings similar to the one held Wednesday in Mississippi.

Earlier Wednesday in Oklahoma City, Gonzales said having more guns on college campuses is not the way to prevent campus violence like the April 16 Virginia Tech shootings in which a gunman killed 32 people and himself.

Gonzales said state and federal governments need to work closely to make campuses safe while still respecting individual freedoms and privacy.

“In a society where we really value individual freedom and respect privacy we’re also concerned about public safety,” Gonzales said.

After the shootings at Virginia Tech, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said armed students in states that allow people to carry concealed weapons have successfully stopped killers in the classroom.

“I don’t think that is the answer, quite frankly,” Gonzales said in Oklahoma. Instead, authorities should enforce existing laws concerning the ownership and use of handguns, he said.

“We can’t guarantee complete security,” Gonzales said. “We need to see what we can do as a government — on the federal level, on the state level — to ensure the safety of our students.”

Authorities should know if a mentally ill student may be prone to violence but their privacy rights should also be protected to avoid discouraging them from seeking treatment, he said.

“We know that treatment is very, very effective,” Gonzales said.