Laura Bush seeks help for young gang members

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First lady Laura Bush yesterday called on educators to help gang members as she began her first national initiative, a three-year, $150 million program aimed at keeping boys out of gangs.

“Reach out to young people who are transitioning out of gangs and prison and back into society,” she told a gathering of community college officials in Washington. “If these young people can learn valuable skills and find good jobs, they’ll have a much better chance of being able to succeed in life.”

The remarks came during Mrs. Bush’s first major speech since she received her assignment from President Bush in his State of the Union address two weeks ago.

“Tonight I propose a three-year initiative to help organizations keep young people out of gangs, and show young men an ideal of manhood that respects women and rejects violence,” he said. “And I am proud that the leader of this nationwide effort will be our first lady, Laura Bush.”

Although the anti-gang initiative is only one component of a broader effort to help troubled boys ages 8 through 17, critics have seized on the gang measure as a way to ridicule the first lady.

“The prospect of Laura Bush, the soft-spoken librarian from Crawford, Texas, lecturing Crips and Bloods about the evils of gangs is a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit waiting to happen,” wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an editorial last week.

Mrs. Bush’s press secretary, Gordon Johndroe, defended his boss’ credentials.

“She’s been a teacher and a librarian and a mother and an advocate for children for a couple decades now, and I think she’s well qualified,” he said.

To pay for the anti-gang initiative, Mr. Bush asked for $150 million in the fiscal 2006 budget he sent to Congress last week. If the money is appropriated, community and religious groups can apply for grants from various federal agencies.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bush has begun touring the country to highlight existing programs that already help troubled youths. So far, she has visited Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The idea for the initiative originated with Mrs. Bush, who has long been concerned about the plight of troubled boys.

“The statistics on boys are particularly alarming,” she said yesterday. “Boys begin to fall behind girls in elementary school. In fact, nearly 70 percent of students in special education classes are boys.

“In high school, the boys fall even further behind, and more girls go on to college than boys,” Mrs. Bush added. “Boys are more likely than girls to commit crimes and to be a victim of violent crime.”

Mrs. Bush, the mother of twin daughters, said her sympathy for troubled boys grew after reading a newspaper article about their plight.

“Boys are the ones who drop out of school, who end up in jail,” she said during an interview Thursday with Jim Lehrer of PBS. “And I just felt like in our country that we bought into the stereotype that boys don’t cry, that boys can be totally self-reliant and that we don’t have to nurture boys like we have to nurture girls. And all of us know intuitively that that’s wrong.”

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