For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
June 13, 2007
Remarks by Secretary Leavitt After Presentation of Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy
Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy
1:31 P.M. EDT
SECRETARY LEAVITT: I have just finished meeting with the President, along with Secretary Gonzales and Secretary Spellings, to report the findings of a nationwide tour that we have taken at the President's direction to talk about the very unfortunate, tragic events at Virginia Tech. One cannot think about this without being saddened by the outcome.
I'd like to just describe for you what the President assigned us to do, and what it is and what it isn't. First, the President asked us to just find out what we can learn from this. Obviously, we live in a world that is a free and open society, and there are dangers that come about, and we're constantly trying to struggle with this question of what's the balance between safety and privacy, what's the balance between security and liberty.
Many of those conversations came up in the 12 states that we visited. We met with governors, we met with the mental health community, the education community, and with law enforcement.
From the report basically came five conclusions. The first is that information sharing has obstacles. I want to make clear, we did not attempt to look into the specifics of what happened at Virginia Tech; that's an appropriate thing for Governor Kaine's commission that he has assigned and has -- now continues to go forward, looking at the specifics.
But as we went to other states, it became very clear that there are perceived obstacles to information sharing. One of the most important things we found is that many of the obstacles are perceived; people don't understand what they can share and what they can't share, and that we need to do a much better job educating educators, mental health community and law enforcement that they can, in fact, share information when a person's safety or a community's safety is in fact potentially endangered.
The second key finding was the need for us to have adequate and complete information for gun sales, particularly among those who have criminal records and mental health. For example, we found that in only about 23 states is information actually being reported to the instant gun check registry. Now, today in Congress, by voice vote, appropriations were voted in the House to help the states with more information and responsibilities with respect to this. But that was a key finding, that we do need to do a better job in being able to have complete and accurate information into the instant check.
The third area had to do with the need for communication. Clearly, in community after community, it was clear that in some cases parents, other cases teachers, faculty, law enforcement, when they saw a student who appeared to be sending the warning signs, that they didn't know what to do or where to turn. It became abundantly clear as we talked to mental health professionals and law enforcement when a person is on the verge of doing something they start sending signals, and if people report it and know what to do, and if there are protocols in place at the schools, that they can in fact prevent some of these or many of these.
The fourth area was the need for us to focus on better coordination of mental health in the community. Over the last 40 years, we've made a very significant shift in the way we treat those with mental illness. In the early '60s and '70s -- rather the late '50s and early '60s, we had many or hundreds of thousands of people who were being treated in institutions. For the last 40 years, we have seen that change, to the point that now most people are being treated in the community. We need to assure that there are adequate facilities, assets, and methods of treatment so that people can get treatment. And we need to coordinate it better.
And lastly, many of the things we know we need to do we just need to do a better job of it. We've found in many states that quite elaborate plans have been developed. In Colorado, for example, after Columbine, we discovered that there were, in specific instances, checklists and plans executed, but in some cases, many of the schools still hadn't implemented them. That's not just true in Colorado, it's true across the country. In many cases there are things we know we should do, we just need to do a better job of them.
Those are the key findings. I won't go through the recommendations, you can see them in the report. I want to make clear -- we don't see this report as being a panacea that will instantly allow us to ensure that this will never happen again. We live in a society that's free and open. These tragedies always inflame many of the issues that have come up before that we have reached a balance on. In some cases we need to recalibrate that balance, in other cases we just need to do a better job of the things we've already decided to do.
Open to questions.
Q Of your five key findings, what was the single most important issue or problem that you identified in your report, and how specifically should that be addressed by either state governments or the federal government?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: They're all important findings, and I suspect they're important in different settings. One of the things that's crucial to recognize is that this has to be approached at the state and local level. In every state there are different laws, different jurisdictional guidelines, different practices that have to be coordinated. While there are things that the federal government can and should do that will facilitate those, this has to be approached at the school level, at the community level.
Now from my standpoint, I will tell you that understanding what can be shared and what can't is an important finding here. We have privacy laws in this country for a very good reason. However, when a person is in danger themselves, or when a community is in danger, the existing law does provide the capacity for law enforcement to work with school communities, and school communities to work with the mental health community to get people help.
Our purpose here is to help people before they act. The point was made over and over that those who engage in this kind of terrible activity often signal before they do it, that they intend to. And if they send signals, it's possible for us to hear them and interrupt it. And we need to do a better job of that.
Q Sir, you mentioned the legislation passed by the House today. Does the administration view it as plugging a gap?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: The administration views it as a very important set of goals, and we're broadly supportive of it. I suspect we'll learn more about the legislation as it unfolds, but see it as a positive thing and consistent with the findings that we had in examining these broad issues.
Q Did the President give any indication that he was inclined to sign it when you were speaking to him?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: We just spoke of the broad goals. Obviously, there's a long ways to go before the bill would reach his desk. The administration will be supportive broadly and anxious to know the details of it.
Q Given your research in this report, was Virginia Tech preventable?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Again, we did not make any -- it is not in our charge to look at Virginia Tech. That will be examined in detail. I was reminded how sad we feel as a society when these things occur. We are blessed to live in an open society, and bad things happen, sometimes for reasons we don't understand. There are things we can learn from each of them, and the findings of this report we hope will help us avoid them whenever possible.
Q Is there any way to approach those who share information of activity --
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Yes, schools need to have a deliberate plan on how they will share information when it's necessary and how they will communicate to their students on the need to talk with an adult, to speak with a counselor, to go to a teacher; if they see things that trouble them, respond. That was echoed all over the country in places where we had seen these tragedies: If you see someone you worry about, get them help; talk with someone who can collaborate with others to find a way to prevent these before they cause themselves or our community the great sadness that occurs in a place like Virginia Tech.
Q Any parents emboldened?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: Say again?
Q Any way to embolden parents?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: The same. We just need to do a better job of educating, understanding, of collaborating -- getting people help. When people are troubled they send signals. When you see someone who has -- who could potentially be of harm to themselves, talk with a law enforcement person, talk with a school counselor, speak with someone at the mental health clinic at the university. When they send signals, we need to help people. Our purpose is to help people and prevent these kind of tragedies from happening at all.
Q What will your agency do next?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: The report contains a long series of recommendations that the federal government can do, both at the Department of Education, at the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and HHS. Each recommendation to the federal government does have an agency or a department assigned to it, and we'll now proceed forward to implement them as they're outlined in the report.
Q Are any executive orders needed? Did the President authorize you, ask you to go forward with a recommendation?
SECRETARY LEAVITT: The President received our report. We are moving forward, as assigned, to implement the recommendations. The President, I'm sure, and his staff will have an opportunity to read the report, digest it, and if there's further action necessary, it will be taken.
Thank you, all.
END 1:41 P.M. EDT