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California Panel Cites Lack of Progress on Safe-School Guarantee

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A sharply critical report on California's efforts to assure safe schools has angered education officials there and focused renewed attention on the state's constitutional guarantee of a safe learning environment.

The report charges that state officials have "failed to provide the leadership and direction" needed to back the guarantee and says that attempts to quantify the extent of school crime have been largely inaccurate and misleading.

The analysis was released last month by the Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy, an independent watchdog group created by the legislature that is known colloquially as the Little Hoover Commission.

Education officials claim that the commission's report merely "regurgitates" previous criticism already raised by the education department and others, who have worked to bring more attention--and state funding--to school-safety issues.

William Rukeyser, a spokesman for the department, cited several factual errors in the study, and called it "a shoot-from-the-hip" effort that will do more harm than good.

"Any report that contains so many inaccuracies and blatant falsehoods is not only going to shoot itself in the foot, it's also going to heap scorn on those who seek to bring light to the issue," he said.

Leadership on 'Serious Threat'

The commission, a bipartisan agency established to monitor governmental activity, initiated the study last July in an attempt to determine the extent of the school-crime problem.

In its report, it concludes that, despite the constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1982, "our schools face serious threats to the safety of students and staff."

According to the commission's findings, crime and violence in California schools is much more widespread than reporting from the education department would indicate. And it is on the rise, rather than declining.

The report attributes much of the blame for this lack of progress to the failure by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig and Gov. George Deukmejian to provide adequate leadership on the issue.

But outside observers dispute that claim, saying California is far ahead of other states in dealing with the problem.

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the federally funded National School Safety Center, located at Pepperdine University in Encino, Calif., said, "I don't know anyone in the state who has been more concerned about school safety than Bill Honig."

California's constitutional initiative--the first of its kind in the nation to be approved by voters--confers on "all students and staff the inalienable right to attend campuses which are safe, secure, and peaceful."

It stemmed from a 1980 lawsuit brought by Mr. Deukmejian, who was then attorney general, against the Los Angeles Unified School District. The suit tested the presumption that public schools must provide students with a safe environment.

But, according to the commission report, the state, under Mr. Deukmejian's leadership, could be doing much more to make schools safe.

It offers 12 recommendations to the legislature. They include offering tax credits to parents who become involved in schools, requiring that teachers and administrators be trained in safety issues before being certified, developing a nongovernmental institute for school safety that would act as a resource clearinghouse, and targeting a certain percentage of discretionary funds for school-safety programs.

Statistics Said Inaccurate

The report is particularly critical of statistics gathered by the education department under its School Crime Reporting program. It requires that each district file an annual report on incidents of crime and violence.

The commission charges in one of its main findings that such data-collection efforts have been consistently marred by underreporting. Districts often interpret the reporting instructions differently, it says, and there is a wide range of data-gathering techniques employed.

More importantly, it charges, the education department has failed to enforce its own reporting requirements, allowing administrators to el10lindulge their natural inclination to avoid adverse publicity.

Nevertheless, departmental statistics show that the number of violent crimes--including assault, homicide, sex offenses, robbery, extortion, and weapons possession--increased from 67,838 in fiscal 1985-86 to 70,247 in fiscal 1986-87.

Mr. Rukeyser noted that department officials have long complained of the inadequacies of the crime-reporting program and have sought legislation that would allow them to amend it to adapt more to the school environment.

Such legislation would include, he said, giving the department more authority to audit district crime reports and providing increased funding.

'Spitting Down a Well'

The commission criticized Governor Deukmejian for vetoing, because of alleged budget constraints, two safety-related bills last year:4one that would have required each district to develop a school-safety plan, and another that would have required the education department to develop a comprehensive drug-abuse-prevention program.

Jeanine English, executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, predicted that funding would be less of a stumbling block this year, since voters adopted an initiative in November--Proposition 98--that guarantees that a certain portion of the state budget go to education.

She stressed the validity of the commission's recommendations and findings and said the group plans to continue lobbying legislators.

Mr. Rukeyser said the department would support many of the proposals, but expressed doubts about the report's legislative impact.

"A lot of things that the Little Hoover Commission does is spitting down a well, and that's the end of it," he said.

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