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Clinton Uses Conference To Put Focus on Fighting Drugs, Violence

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Greenbelt, Md.

President Clinton assembled more than 300 drug- and violence-prevention experts and high-ranking officials here last week in a election-year effort to reaffirm his commitment to combating illegal drug use and violence among the nation's young people.

At what was billed as the first White House Leadership Conference on Youth, Drug Use, and Violence, Mr. Clinton told several hundred students packed into the gymnasium of Eleanor Roosevelt High School that "the country will be great only if we give children back their childhood and make violence and drug use the exception to the rule."

After a steady decline during the 1980s, experts say that teenage drug use is on the rise again.

The percentage of 12- to 17-year-olds who reported that they had used illicit drugs in the past year inched up from 11.7 percent in 1992 to 13.6 percent in 1993, according to a recent report by the White House Office of National Drug-Control Policy. And another recent national study showed that teenagers in 1995 were less likely to consider illicit drug use harmful than those surveyed in 1993. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1996.)

The president used last week's public forum to introduce his administration's new "drug czar," retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was sworn in as the director of the drug-control office early last week.

The daylong conference in this Washington suburb proved to be the sort of public-policy marathon that has become a Clinton trademark, bringing together policy experts, political leaders, community activists, parents, and students for a day of discussion on some of the country's most intractable problems.

The guest list included Vice President Al Gore, six Cabinet secretaries, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

Closed-Door Debates

After public remarks were made, Cabinet secretaries and other Clinton administration officials chaired nine round-table discussions that were closed to the news media.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley led a discussion on making schools safe and drug free. Attorney General Janet Reno presided over a session on strengthening law enforcement's response to juvenile crime.

There was also a session on the media's role in preventing youth drug use and violence--which, like the others, was closed to reporters.

Each of the panels was asked to draw up strategies to address the problems discussed and to present its recommendations to the president.

White House officials said last week that a report detailing the proposals and the administration's response would be released in May.

Although President Clinton did not formally announce any new initiatives to thwart drug use and violence among young people, he did praise attendees who promoted prevention efforts, ran "drug courts," and engaged in public-awareness campaigns in schools.

Mr. Clinton also commended the National Pharmaceutical Council, a trade association based in Reston, Va., for launching an effort last week to disseminate substance-abuse-prevention information through millions of doctors' offices nationwide.

Students at Eleanor Roosevelt High had mixed reactions to the president's visit.

Mandy Volk, a 10th grader, said she felt encouraged by his attention to the issue. "Maybe his influence will help, and young people will stop their bad habits," she said.

But another sophomore, Crystal Martin, was not so sanguine.

"I don't think it gets in people's heads that smoking and doing drugs is bad," Ms. Martin said. "People are going to live their own lives."

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