Good morning. This morning I want to talk with you about what we can do to break the hold of gangs and violence in our schools and what we can do to create an atmosphere in our schools that promotes discipline and order and learning.
Today I'm visiting Long Beach, California, a community that has helped to restore order to its schools by requiring elementary and middle school students to wear uniforms. I believe that if parents and school officials decide to take this step, the rest of us should support them. Let me tell you why.
As I said in my State of the Union Address, our Nation is in a moment of great possibility, a time when more of our people will be able to live out their dreams than ever before, a time of fabulous opportunity. But we all know it's also a time of uncertainty, a time when we face economic challenges, educational challenges, challenges to our family, to our environment, to the safety of our streets.
We will master this moment only if we meet those challenges together. When we are divided, we defeat ourselves; but when Americans are together, we are never defeated. That's how we have to meet all the major challenges facing our Nation: strengthening our families; building economic security for every working family; fighting crime and drugs and gangs; protecting our environment; maintaining our leadership for peace and freedom in the world; continuing to reform and reinvent our Government so that it is smaller and less bureaucratic but still strong enough to serve the American people better.
And none of these goals can be achieved unless we meet our seventh challenge, to give our children—all our children—a good, world-class education. And we know that our children cannot learn in schools where weapons, gang violence, and drugs threaten their safety or where plain unruliness and disorder and lack of discipline make learning impossible. Most of our schools are safe, but no parent who walks a child to the bus stop and waves goodbye in the morning should ever have to wonder if that child will return home safely when the last bell rings.
Our administration has worked hard to make our schools safer, getting parents more involved in schools, keeping guns out, teaching that drugs are wrong, supporting random drug testing of student-athletes, letting communities know that schools need not be religion-free zones. I have challenged our schools to teach values and citizenship through character education. And if a juvenile kills or maims as an adult, he should be prosecuted as an adult.
But we must do more, and local communities must lead the way. I believe we should give strong support to school districts that decide to require young students to wear school uniforms. We've all seen the tragic headlines screaming of the death of a teenager who was killed for a pair of sneakers or jewelry or a designer jacket. In Detroit, a 15-year-old boy was shot for his $86 basketball shoes. In Fort Lauderdale, a 15-year-old student was robbed of his jewelry. Just this past December in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a 17-year-old honor student was killed at a bus stop, caught in the crossfire during the robbery of another student's designer jacket.
School uniforms are one step that may be able to help break this cycle of violence, truancy, and disorder by helping young students to understand that what really counts is what kind of people they are, what's on the inside, to remember that what they're doing at school is working, not showing off their own clothes or envying another student's clothes.
Two years ago Long Beach, California, was the first school district in our Nation to require elementary and middle school students to wear uniforms to class. So far, the results have been encouraging. In the first year of school uniforms, both fights between students and students bringing guns to school were cut in half. Overall crime in the schools was cut by more than a third. Just as encouraging was the way Long Beach pulled together: the board of education voting, starting a uniform program; parents actively supporting it; businesses and churches and civic organizations helping to buy uniforms for the students who can't afford them; and students using their new freedom from fear and freedom from insecurity and freedom from envy to learn.
Aziza Walker, a fourth-grader from Long Beach, wrote me this letter. "It is easier to pick out what I want to wear. It's more convenient for my mom, so she won't have to wash so many colors. It also helps me when I walk home with my cousin or by myself. So I won't get shot, beaten, or robbed by a gang or just by some maniac on the street."
We have a basic, old-fashioned bottom line. We must get violence out of our schools, and we must put discipline and learning back in our schools. If it means teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms. If it means that the schoolrooms will be more orderly, more disciplined, and that our young people will learn to evaluate themselves by what they are on the inside instead of what they're wearing on the outside, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms.
Let me be clear: Washington will not tell our schools what to do. We know the best teacher for a child is a loving parent, and the decision whether to require uniforms should be made by parents, by teachers, by local schools. But if they want to do it, we want to help them understand how it can be done. That's why today I signed a directive instructing the Secretary of Education to distribute a new manual on school uniforms to every school district in the Nation. Rather than telling schools what to do, we are providing a roadmap for setting up the school uniform policy for schools who choose to start one.
Every one of us has an obligation to work together, to give our children freedom from fear and the freedom to learn. If we act together, we can give them the chance to make the most of their young lives and to build better futures.
Thanks for listening.