"We reflect on what has been lost and comfort those enduring a profound grief. And somehow we know that a brighter morning will come. We know this because together Americans have overcome many evils and found strength through many storms."
-President George W. Bush
June 13, 2007
The President The White House Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:
In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, you charged us to travel to communities across our Nation to meet with a wide range of leaders on the broader issues raised by this tragedy, and to report back to you what we learned, together with our recommendations for how the Federal government can help avoid such tragedies in the future. The enclosed report summarizes our findings and provides our recommendations developed through discussions with educators, mental health experts, law enforcement and other key state and local officials from more than a dozen states.
We found great commonality in the themes that emerged from our meetings. Following the Virginia Tech tragedy and similar incidents of violence that have occurred in recent years, states and local communities are carefully considering whether they have properly addressed and balanced the fundamental interests of privacy and individual freedom, safety and security, and assisting those with mental health needs in getting appropriate care. Although state and local leaders recognized and underscored that these issues primarily must be resolved at the state and local level, these events make all of us ask whether there is more we can and should be doing.
As we note in our report, our recommendations are not a panacea. Rather, along with identifying steps that we can take, the report serves to focus our attention on the issues that must be part of the ongoing national dialogue as we continue to protect the freedoms we enjoy in our society, while appropriately minimizing risks to public safety.
We look forward to continuing our collaboration on the Federal level, as well as with states and localities, in our ongoing efforts to address these fundamental issues and take concrete steps to promote the well being and safety of all Americans.
Michael O. Leavitt Secretary Department of Health and Human Services
Margaret Spellings Secretary Department of Education
Alberto R. Gonzales Attorney General Department of Justice
This report summarizes the recurring major themes that led to each finding, along with critical steps state and local leaders identified as being taken, or needing to be taken, to address school violence and mental illness. Though state and local leaders pointed out that these issues reside primarily with states and localities, we have concluded there are several things the federal government also can and should do to help. Thus, this report also identifies steps our three federal agencies can take to ensure federal law and activities support, rather than impede, state and local efforts to deal with the complex issues raised by the Virginia Tech tragedy. It adds to a significant array of efforts that the federal and state governments have already undertaken to address these types of issues. 1
In addition, participants also cited the important role that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security plays in assisting the states and localities in conducting threat assessments and risk preparedness. A number of the federal recommendations we identify in the report suggest opportunities for our agencies and Homeland Security to work together to better assist states and localities in these functions.
The U.S. Department of Education, in collaboration with the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Justice, should explore research of targeted violence in institutions of higher education3 and continue to share existing threat assessment methodology with interested institutions4.
5 Many participants suggested the need to evaluate the existing approach in their state to sharing mental health information and how their state regulates access to firearms by persons with mental illness who are at risk of injury to themselves or others.
State and Local Recommendations
Prioritize and address legal and financial barriers to submitting all relevant disqualifying information to the NICS and other crucial inter-agency information sharing systems to prevent individuals who are prohibited from possessing firearms by federal or state law from acquiring firearms from federally licensed firearms dealers.
Recommended Federal Action
The U.S. Department of Justice, through the FBI and ATF, should reiterate the scope and requirements of federal firearms laws, including guidance on the federal firearms prohibitions in the Gun Control Act of 1968 and how to provide information to the NICS on persons whose receipt of a firearm would violate state or federal law.6
The U.S. Department of Justice, through the FBI and ATF, should continue to encourage state and federal agencies to provide all appropriate information to the NICS so that required background checks are thorough and complete.7
Some states may need to evaluate whether changes or modifications to state law are necessary to make more relevant information available to NICS. The U.S. Department of Justice should work with states to provide appropriate guidance on policies and procedures that would ensure that relevant and complete information is available for background checks.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should include a focus on college students in its mental health public education campaign to encourage young people to support their friends who are experiencing mental health problems. 9
The U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice should continue to work together and with states and local communities to improve and expand their collaboration on their "Safe Schools/Healthy Students" program.10
12 to ensure it addresses the needs of institutions of higher education and then disseminate it widely.
The U.S. Departments of Education, Homeland Security, and Justice should collaborate and be proactive in helping state, local, and campus law enforcement receive desired training and making them aware of federal resources on behavioral analysis, active shooter training, and other research and analysis relevant to preparedness and response. 13
The U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, jointly and separately, and in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, should consider allowing existing grant programs to be used to facilitate joint training exercises for state, local, and campus law enforcement. 14
The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security should examine their community preparedness grants to state and local communities, which include an emphasis on early detection of hazards through information sharing, to clarify the grants that are available for the prevention of and preparedness for violence in schools, offices, and public places.
2 In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing (COPS) sponsored a national summit on campus safety issues which included campus law enforcement practitioners, local, state, and Federal government officials, and representatives from the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) and other law enforcement and higher education organizations. The results of this summit are contained in a report entitled National Summit on Campus Public Safety: Strategies for Colleges and Universities in a Homeland Security Environment, which can be found at http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/ric/Publications/NationalSummitonCampusPublicSafety.pdf. The report's primary recommendation was the creation of a National Center for Campus Law Enforcement that will develop and disseminate training, best practices, model policies, and other resources to enhance public safety on campus. To further this recommendation, the COPS Office provided funding to IACLEA to further explore the creation of a national center and more clearly define the campus public safety needs that a national center would seek to address. This project is on-going.
3 Participants in a number of state sessions cited as a model tool for effective threat assessments, the May 2002 guidance published jointly by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, entitled Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. The guide is based upon research conducted by the Department of Education and the Secret Service on forty-one shooters and thirty-seven targeted school shootings that occurred between 1974 and 2000. The guide and interactive CD-ROM were distributed in April 2007 to Safe School Centers, School Security Chiefs, key education associations, and Chief State School Officers and can be found at http://www.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/threatassessmentguide.pdf.
4 The FBI's National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime Behavioral Analysis Unit-1 (BAU) (http://www.fbi.gov/hq/isd/cirg/ncavc.htm) provides federal, state, local, and foreign law enforcement agencies with various behavioral analysis services, with a specialty relating to issues involving threat assessment and school violence. The BAU works with requesting agencies in an attempt to provide a threat management strategy after gathering and evaluating all available information regarding various facets of the student's life. The BAU also provides training programs on this topic to various law enforcement agencies, school administration personnel, and mental health professionals who are regularly tasked with responding to threatening situations in school environments.
5 The U.S. Department of Justice recently submitted a crime bill to Congress. Among other things, the proposed legislation recognizes the importance of state efforts to improve information about mental health records, and criminal dispositions in ensuring the effectiveness of federal firearms laws. The bill prioritizes NCHIP grant applications that aim to improve the quantity and quality of records included in the NICS.
6 The NICS Section of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division has been working for the past eight years to promote the submission of information identifying all qualifying prohibited individuals to the NICS Index through a national outreach initiative focused on sharing information with stakeholders about the NICS' operations. The NICS Section of CJIS has promoted the submission of mental health records and sought to further understanding of the scope of federal law and the need to make information available to the NICS through outreach to state and local officials. The NICS Section's efforts have included a wide array of stakeholders, including law enforcement, mental health professionals, and court personnel. The NICS Section has previously sent letters to states reminding them of the scope of federal law and the need to make information available to the NICS. In addition, the ATF has been proactive in educating law enforcement and the firearms dealer community on federal firearms laws, and will continue to do so. After the Virginia Tech tragedy, ATF communicated to all state Attorneys General and federal firearms licensees explaining the federal firearms prohibition relating to "mental defectives" in the Gun Control Act of 1968 and encouraging states to make relevant information available to the NICS. These letters are available on the ATF's website at http://www.atf.gov/press/2007press/050907open-letter-to-states-attorneys-general.htm and http://www.atf.gov/press/2007press/050907open-letter-to-ffls.htm.
7 By law, federal agencies are required to provide certain information to the NICS. Section 103(e) (1) of the Brady Act (Pub. L. 103-159) provides the Attorney General the authority to secure directly from any department or agency of the United States information on persons whose receipt of a firearm would violate federal or state law. The provision provides that the heads of such agencies shall provide the information to the NICS. To that end, the Department of Justice will continue its efforts to ensure that all federal agencies with relevant information forward that information to the NICS. Neither the Brady Act nor other federal laws require states to submit information on prohibited persons to the NICS, and thus to the extent that States submit information on prohibited persons to the NICS, they do so voluntarily. The Brady Act established the NCHIP Federal funding program, administered by BJS, as the primary means to improve the automation and accessibility of state criminal records at the national level. The President, through his FY 2008 budget, makes grant funding available, for which states can apply to improve the information provided to the NICS. In addition to providing funding to states, DOJ has been working to encourage the States to submit information on prohibited persons to the NICS. However, significant shortcomings remain in the completeness of the records in the system and the availability of relevant information for NICS checks.
8 CDC's Academic Centers of Excellence on Youth Violence Prevention focus on assessing the problem of youth violence in targeted communities; mobilizing those communities to prevent youth violence; researching the development, evaluation, and dissemination of effective interventions; integrating the research and community mobilization components; and emphasizing interdisciplinary and participatory research to prevent youth violence. http://www.safeyouth.org/scripts/index.asp.
CDC's Choose Respect initiative is a national effort to help youth form healthy relationships to prevent dating abuse before it starts. The initiative targets 11-14 year olds and the caring adults in their lives with the message that dating abuse is not just unacceptable, but also preventable by choosing respect. Based on social marketing principles and models of behavior change, the overall aim of the initiative is to move the target audience through the various stages of change by increasing knowledge and awareness; influencing beliefs; changing attitudes; and changing and sustaining behavior.
9 The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through its Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, recently launched the Mental Health National Anti Stigma Campaign to encourage young people between 18 and 25 to support their friends who are experiencing mental health problems. The prevalence of serious psychological distress in this age group is high, more than 50% higher than the general population, yet this age group is the least likely to receive treatment. The Web site for the program is http://www.stopstigma.samhsa.gov.
10 The Safe Schools/Healthy Students program provides grants to school districts for comprehensive, community-wide drug and violence prevention projects. School districts are required to partner with local law enforcement, public mental health, and juvenile justice agencies/entities. This program is jointly funded by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services and jointly administered by the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice. Information can be found at http://www.sshs.samhsa.gov.
11 The inter-agency Federal Executive Steering Committee consists of high-level representatives from agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and from nine other federal departments that serve children, adults, and older adults who have mental disorders. The Committee oversees implementation of the Interagency Federal Action Agenda on Mental Health under the President's New Freedom Initiative. The Interagency Federal Action Agenda on Mental Health includes public education campaigns to de-stigmatize and raise awareness about mental illness and grants to states to transform their mental health system (including focused grants for children and adolescents) and foster the development of a mental health system that is evidence based, recovery focused, and consumer and family driven. http://www.samhsa.gov/Federalactionagenda/NFC_execsum.aspx.
12 In September 2004, the Department of Education published Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities. The guide gives schools, districts, and communities the critical concepts and components of good crisis planning, stimulates thinking about the crisis preparedness process, and provides examples of promising practices. The guide can be found at: http://www.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/crisisplanning.html.
13 The U.S. Department of Justice, through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), has several relevant training courses that are available and currently scheduled for implementation across the country. Examples include the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Program, developed in partnership with Texas State University. In addition, BJA has planned, in partnership with the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) to facilitate a summit in the summer of 2007 to invite federal agencies, law enforcement, security, and education executives for high level discussions on campus safety and security needs, resources, and promising practices. BJA's Campus Crime Prevention Training Program covers relevant topics over several days, in partnership with the National Crime Prevention Council and the IACLEA. The FBI and ATF also provide training courses as needed and desired. Specifically, as noted in footnote 4, above, the BAU is expert in behavioral analysis and works with state and local government to provide expertise and training.
14 The U.S. Department of Justice will continue to work with colleges and universities on training initiatives and will continue to make funds available to states. The Department of Justice urges states to consider how to make federal funds available to colleges and universities. In this regard, the Department of Justice should consider whether additional education and outreach to potentially eligible college and university participants, either directly or through state grant recipients, is warranted. Information about the grant program is located at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/grant/byrne.html.