Targets Discipline Issue for Teachers, Minority Groups
Washington--Reagan Administration officials say they view school discipline as the Administration's next major education issue, but they are also actively exploring ways to use the issue to political advantage in the 1984 Presidential campaign.
In his recent address to the national forum on education in Indianapolis, the President spoke of "stricter discipline codes" as a "fundamental reform" needed in the schools. He also said he had directed the Departments of Justice and Education to "find ways [the federal government] can help teachers and administrators enforce discipline."
That task, in fact, was initiated last June when Presidential Counselor Edwin Meese III created a White House "working group" on school violence and discipline under the chairmanship of Gary L. Bauer, deputy under secretary of education.
Mr. Bauer said last week that the Administration feels it can, through initiatives promoting better school discipline, associate itself publicly with a popular issue--as it did last summer with merit pay--and improve its standing with rank-and-file teachers and minority parents. Polls show those two groups to be deeply concerned about the issue and also generally alienated from the Reagan Administration.
"We see school discipline as a civil-rights issue," Mr. Bauer said. "Not from the standpoint that students need more due-process protection, but in the sense that it's minority students that most often have their education disrupted by discipline problems."
He said the positive response from teachers to the President's call for strong school discipline in a speech before the American Federation of Teachers last July in Los Angeles encouraged the Administration to continue to pursue the issue. "If we can make progress on this issue, the teacher unions' endorsement of Mondale won't mean anything," he said.
In 14 of the past 15 years, discipline has been identified as the most serious problem in education by the Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.
The Administration's working group, which also includes representatives from the Office of Management and Budget, the Justice Department, and the White House office of policy development, last week was scheduled to submit to the White House Cabinet Council on Human Resources a 35-page memorandum outlining the seriousness of the discipline problem in the schools and possible ways for the Administration to address it.
The working group, according to sources familiar with its work, rec-ommends that the Justice Department be instructed to seek federal court cases in which the Administration could side with teachers and school officials to increase their authority to discipline students.
The department, Administration sources say, is currently debating whether to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of school authorities in a case now before the Supreme Court, New Jersey v. tlo, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the "exclusionary rule" prohibits evidence seized unconstitutionally by school officials from being used to prosecute students for drug violations.
The task force also recommends that the Justice Department establish a National School Safety Center, which would house a computerized national clearinghouse of violence-prevention resources.
It recommends in its memorandum that one of the National Institute of Education research centers be instructed to study ways of preventing school violence and discipline and that the Education Department conduct regional hearings on the problem.
It also suggests that President Reagan use the power of his office to draw attention to the issue by making major speeches on the topic, visiting schools where discipline has been improved, and convening a meeting on the subject in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Bauer said he expects the human-resources Cabinet council, chaired by Margaret Heckler, secretary of health and human services, to approve the working group's paper and submit it to the President in several weeks.