Administration Considers Changing Law To Help Discipline Efforts in Schools
Washington--The Reagan Administration, as part of the President's school-discipline initiative, is considering the feasibility of changing a civil-rights law that has been blamed for making school officials unwilling to discipline students, a Justice Department official said at one of two Congressional hearings on school discipline last week.
Alfred S. Regnery, administrator of the Justice Department's office of juvenile jus-tice and delinquency prevention, told members of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice that the department is examining the Supreme Court's landmark 1975 student-rights decision, Wood v. Strickland, to determine whether it is possible to change the federal statute on which the nine-year-old decision is based.
Mr. Regnery's comments came in response to questioning from Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and chairman of the subcommittee, who asked several witnesses whether they thought changing Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 would increase school officials' capacity to handle discipline problems.
Under Section 1983, state authorities acting in an official capacity are liable for damages in civil-rights cases unless it can be proved that they acted in "good faith"--that is, if they believed at the time that their action was correct.
But in 1975, the Supreme Court ruled in Wood that "good faith" was no longer sufficient insulation against liability and set a stricter standard. "School officials are not immune from liability if they knew, or reasonably should have known, that the action they took would violate the constitutional rights of the students," the Court said.
For that reason, teachers and administrators often fear taking disciplinary action against students, said Gary L. Bauer, the deputy undersecretary of education who headed the Administration's school-discipline task force and who testified with Mr. Regnery on behalf of the Administration.
A report from the Justice Department on whether pursuing legislation to change section 1983 is advisable is expected "soon," Mr. Regnery said.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, disagreed with Mr. Bauer on the efficacy of the legal strategy, saying, ''I don't know any teachers who are afraid to discipline students because they could be held liable."
A greater problem, he said, is the frustration of taking a student who has committed a criminal act in school through the juvenile-justice system, only to have the judge send the student right back to school.
"We do have a hard time getting teachers to press charges," Mr. Shanker told the subcommittee, "but it's because they know what's going to happen in the end."
In two days of testimony before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, other educators said they agreed that discipline is a major problem, but they contended that the recently issued report of the Administration task force, "Disorder in Our Public Schools," did not present an accurate picture of the situation.
Gary D. Gottfredson, director of The Johns Hopkins University's program on delinquency and school environments, labeled "misleading" the "notion that school disorder is an acute crisis."
"The best available evidence suggests no recent dramatic increases or decreases in disorder in schools," said Mr. Gottfredson, who is working on a national discipline study involving 600 schools, "nor does it suggest dramatic increases or decreases in serious juvenile crime.''
What the most recent data do indicate, he told members of the subcommittee, "is that we have some chronic disciplinary problems in many schools."
Educators also criticized both the President and his task force's report for not making a clear distinction between school violence and unruly and disruptive behavior.
"Whenever school violence is discussed," said William W. Wayson, professor of educational policy and leadership at The Ohio State University, "you can count on someone's confusing violence and safety with discipline problems. As a matter of fact, they are different problems, and melding them confounds the issues and reduces the probability of curbing either."
Representative William F. Goodling, Republican of Pennsylvania and the subcommittee's ranking minority member, told witnesses he did not think the issue at hand was the quality of the President's report.
"I think we have to be careful about the business of using statistics," Representative Goodling said. "It becomes confusing to us and the public." He added that since everyone seemed to agree that discipline was a problem, "let's get rid of the statistics and work on the problem."
"I recommend that the Administration and Congress give a high priority to those legislative programs that assist schools with large populations of minorities, disadvantaged, and handicapped students," said Jack Isch, administrative assistant to the superintendent of the Oklahoma City Public Schools.
"Additional support for such programs as Chapter I, vocational education, and esaa [the Emergency School Aid Act, a program to assist desegregation efforts that was folded into the Chapter 2 education block-grants program in 1981] will assist school districts in achieving the desired excellence in education expressed by the Administration," Mr. Isch said.
Mary H. Futrell, president of the National Education Association, outlined a four-point plan for subcommittee members, including a recommendation that they support the proposed American defense education act, which was reintroduced in the House this month by Representative Carl D. Perkins, Democrat of Kentucky and chairman of the subcommittee. The bill would provide federal funds to school districts through a formula based on states' per-pupil expenditures.
"The support services in our schools need to be bolstered," Ms. Futrell said. "The American defense education act would help local school districts strengthen their professional counseling efforts."
Mr. Bauer said the Administration did not consider discipline to be a "dollar and cents" issue.
The President is hoping that by focusing national attention on the problem, he will encourage states and local groups to seek solutions, Mr. Bauer said. That strategy was successful following the release of report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education last spring, Mr. Bauer contended, pointing out that 45 states are working on reform legislation.