Taking her family values campaign to the streets, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton swung through Los Angeles on Wednesday, praising students at an Eastside learning center and later meeting with children's rights advocates in Beverly Hills to discuss violence in schools.
"There are many institutions in our society where children deserve to feel safe and out of harm's way, but do not," Clinton told members of the Children's Institute International at the Beverly Hilton.
"Schools are perhaps the most important of these," she continued. "Every school in American should make sure as its first priority that every child who attends that school can safely do so."
Clinton's remarks come at a time when the institute--meeting for a two-day conference--found that nearly half of 904 teens surveyed nationwide felt that their schools are becoming more violent.
According to the study, which was released at the conference on Wednesday, more than 90% of the youths polled said they perceived the world as becoming increasingly violent. Well over one-third said that the threat of violence is always in their lives, while almost 40% said they sometimes had to be violent to protect themselves.
"If we cannot keep our children safe in school, we cannot expect them to learn," Clinton told the 650-member audience. "That should be our first priority."
The crowd responded with cheers.
The study "is a wake-up call," said Betty Lowe, president of the board of directors of the national institute.
Group officials praised the Democratic and Republican parties for choosing to make children's issues a central theme of their presidential campaigns.
"Now it's our task to find practical ways to halt the escalating violence against the children, which has exacted a terrible toll on those least able to defend themselves," said Mary Emmons, the group's executive director.
Clinton told the group that she supports "the old-fashioned approach" to keeping campuses safe.
"It's the approach that I have seen work best," she said. "Principals and teachers who stand in the hallways who know their students, who support their students, who keep an eye out for trouble. . . .
"Those are the schools that eventually begin to be safe, even if they are in very tough neighborhoods."
Through her travels across the country, Clinton said, she has developed a sense of optimism that any problem--whether dealing with gangs, drugs or violence in schools--can be overcome.
"I sense a greater openness and a willingness to address honestly the problems we have and find a way to figure out solutions," she said. "I'm privileged to see what is working, as well as what is not, around our country."
An example of a successful program, Clinton told the group, is the Puente Learning Center in Boyle Heights, where the first lady spent part of her Wednesday morning.
Clinton received a tour of the learning center, where students--ranging from 3 years to 88--are taught on computers. The center combines private and public funds to offer a range of classes, including sessions in literacy, English as a second language and job training, for about 1,800 students.
One student, Engracia Enriquez, 35, told Clinton that she was born in poverty in Mexico City to a family so poor she had no shoes to wear to school.
"As you can see now, I have shoes," said Enriquez, speaking to Clinton in front of an assembly of several hundred students. "I want to be a teacher. I look upon teachers as protectors."
Clinton embraced Enriquez. The first lady told the group: "You are pioneering a better life for yourself and your family."
Noting that puente is Spanish for "bridge," she added: "Those of you who have created the bridge and those who have walked across it have shown the rest of the country what is possible."